Writing Magazine


Bringing books to Bermondsey

‘I’m delighted to share that my seventh novel The Bermondsey Bookshop, has just been published,’ writes subscriber Mary Gibson.

‘It’s the story of young orphan Kate Goss’s struggle against poverty, hunger and cruel family secrets. Living in a vermin-infested garret, she has to survive by her own wits. But after being laid off from her job at the tin factory, she falls prey to a violent local money lender and has barely enough money to feed herself. That is until an unexpected opportunity comes her way – a job cleaning a most unusual bookshop.

‘My inspiration for this novel came almost a decade ago when I read about a real bookshop, founded in 1921 by an ex-actress called Ethel Gutman. The estate agent showing her around the prospective premises in Bermondsey Street warned her off when he found out what she planned to use it for. “Books in Bermondsey!” It would never work, he explained, “Beer and boxing yes, but books? No!” When I read that she ignored his sound business advice and insisted that the love of literature was alive in “mean streets as in Mayfair”, I gave a silent cheer, for as a bookish child growing up during the fifties, I always felt a painful longing for a bookshop in Bermondsey.

‘Ethel Gutman’s stated aim was: “To bring books and the love of books into Bermondsey.” Everything was designed to make the shop accessible to local working people. With evening opening hours to suit factory or dock workers coming off their shifts; use of a cosy reading room as a refuge for those living in crowded homes; a sixpenny “instalment plan” for buying books; and numerous free classes and lectures from celebrity speakers such as John Galsworthy and Walter. Contributions from hitherto unpublished working-class writers sat alongside pieces by HG Wells and Virginia Woolf.

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