We never intended buying a bookshop. Books weren’t part of the original plan at all. We were looking for performance space, which is at a premium in central London. The back of the bookshop had shelves for second hand books and a stage for readings, which we turned into a small theatre. That’s how I became a bookseller, along with my three partners (Sergio, Luis and Mark), two Argentinians and another Brit.
The shop was started originally by John Calder, the legendary publisher and friend of Samuel Beckett, who ran his publishing company from here. The premises then passed to the publisher Alessandro Gallenzi before we acquired the shop in 2011.
Trying to do theatre in London is difficult. Rehearsal and performance space is incredibly expensive, and that in turn dictates everything you do. It compels groups to do projects that they’re confident will find an audience in order to recoup costs. But we can pick and choose our plays and if necessary perform to an audience of two or three as we’re not compelled to make money from it.
That same philosophy transfers to the bookshop. We don’t judge what to stock based upon the bestseller lists. We just stock books we like. One whole side of the bookshop is devoted to theatre – plays and playwrights, books about performance and stagecraft, criticism and other academic theatre texts. The other side of the shop is for politics and philosophy, and some psychology, and is based purely on what interests us. We don’t pretend to be impartial. We stock left-wing texts. Our focus isn’t on maximising profits. We just want to pay the bills and put on productions we think are valuable.
We sell enough books, new and second-hand, to get by. We make ends meet by renting out rehearsal space. We’re lucky because we’re right by the Young Vic and the Old Vic and we sell the kind of the books that theatre-goers and drama students tend to be interested in. Our opening hours are designed to fit with the lifestyles of the theatre crowd – we open at 11 and don’t close until 9. Customers also come to see us before they go to the theatre or pop out in the interval to browse.
Books that have been selling well recently include Paul Mason’s Postcapitalism, Naomi Klein’s book This Changes Everything, and the Owen Jones books. We also sell a lot of Foucault and John Berger, Eric Hobsbawm, Freud, Jung – radical political theory and ideas. Thinking of the theatre books we sell a lot of Peter Brook, Stanislavski, Declan Donnellan – what might be considered the core texts. Our bestselling theatre book is probably Boal’s Theatre of the Oppressed. Plays can be very unpredictable – it’s hard to know what will sell but we have to stock as many as we can. We couldn’t really call ourselves a theatre bookshop without them.
As partners, we pay ourselves what the shop can afford, which is not very much. I used to have a food shop in Battersea and in financial terms it was successful, but it nearly killed me. There’s a price attached to retail success, an anxiety that comes with continuously keeping up the takings, attracting customers, beating the competition. When we first opened the shop here, people said we should open a café here or a juice bar or grind coffee – that sort of thing. But I’ve run that kind of business before – one that’s continually striving to grow and maximise all the time – and it drove me mad. So now we do what we do. We sell books, we make theatre. We’re not interested in becoming a prize-winning sell-out theatre or the top-rated bookshop in London. To some, it’s an opportunity wasted, but we’re driven to do what we love, not purely to make money.
We spoke to Daniel Kelly, bookseller and co-owner of The Calder Bookshop.
The Calder Bookshop and Theatre is at 51 The Cut, London, SE1 8LF
Monday to Saturday 11am to 9pm. Sunday 1pm to 7pm