Where new writing finds its voice
Literary London

Clerkenwell Tales

Anna Goodall

Anna Goodall takes a good look around one of the capital’s newest independent bookshops

Clerkenwell Tales is an independent bookshop that opened this year in EC1’s safely fashionable Exmouth Market. Proprietor Peter Ho certainly seems to understand what literary-minded booklovers want, and thus has created a clean airy space, lined with oak shelves and painted in a calm green shade that serves as a blank canvas on which to display the carefully selected stock. As he himself notes, ‘It’s such a small space I essentially have to “curate” what books to sell’.

Design is clearly important to this bookseller, and as someone almost unable to buy a badly designed book even if I want to read it, I couldn’t spot a dud one in there. I’m sure there were one or two hiding on the shelves, but the clean backdrop means that those chosen for display look highly desirable: ‘Friends had slight reservations that it [the green colour] would seem a bit too cold, but I was pretty confident that the colour of the books would give the shop a warm, inviting feel.’ It’s worked a treat.

Ox-Tales, the Oxfam-commissioned four-book series of short stories including tales from Lionel Shriver, John le Carré, DBC Pierre, and Jeanette Winterson, among a host of other big names, greet you as you walk in the door; but soon my eye is caught by the gorgeous new Faber editions of Plath and Eliot; to my left I spot a Vintage Classics edition of The Pickwick Papers with a cover photo of a pair of spindly old-fashioned spectacles curled up upon an inky script-covered page; there’s also an impressive ‘Art & Design’ section, but just before I get there I’m arrested by a striking black and white cover of a couple sitting on a bench, their backs to camera – Kate Ruiphe’s Uncommon Arrangements explores unconventional literary marriages between 1910 and 1935 such as HG and Jude Wells, Katherine Mansfield and John Middleton Murray, and the Bells; and oh dear, are those some lovely Pushkin Press editions I see nestling on the top shelf of the ‘Classics’ section? The wallet is starting to twitch…

When I ask Peter about the design of the shop he replies, ‘Jacket design and illustration is very important and is something I am conscious of along with the quality of the paper, typography, etc. It’s a myth that books sell themselves and I think that over the last five to ten years publishers have certainly thought more about the design values of books across all genres.’ The emphasis here is on the quality of the writing, however, and he’s very clear that he ‘would stock a book [with a bad cover] as long as the content was strong and I could handsell the title.’

Like all the best bookshops, Clerkenwell Tales is a real place for browsers and the way the books have been chosen – recommendations by friends, family and ‘increasingly those of my customers’ as well as Peter’s own choices and favourites – means it is very satisfying to look round, all the books being linked by the thread of genuine and unashamed literary/academic interest and crucially a sense of humour, plus an unabashed appreciation of more popular stuff.

This personal touch, and his commitment to ‘handselling’ allows Peter to choose a far more unusual selection and the poetry section in particular is far better than you could find in any mainstream bookshop with Faber classics and other canonical favourites, alongside poets such as Roddy Lumsden, Luke Kennard and Laura Dockrill. A section entitled ‘Books We Love’ showcases titles as diverse as Any Human Heart, The Leopard, Tamara Drewe, and The Book of Lost Things. The shop also houses a good strong collection of small magazines including Pen Pusher, Slightly Foxed, One-Eye Grey and the newly launched Clerkenwell Other.

Unsurprisingly, Peter is pretty passionate about the benefits of independent bookselling as opposed to the ‘bland, homogenous experience of the high-street.’ But why? ‘Personal recommendations and handselling books because I have read them is very important and customers love to talk about books! […] I can certainly reflect the interests of my customers a lot quicker and hopefully provide a stimulating and inviting environment.’ He goes on to reveal that his bestselling fiction title – All My Friends Are Superheroes by Andy Kaufman – was recommended by his second-ever customer, Karen. ‘Customers feel comfortable when they know they are dealing with a bookseller who reads, is passionate about books and has the time to discuss not just books but pretty much anything (within reason) that is on their minds.’

Indeed when I visited the shop Peter was talking in-depth to several customers, recommending the new Auster, giving a brief overview of Portnoy’s Complaint, and being shocked to discover he had sold out of Kafka: ‘It should be between Joyce and Karinthy’.

I ask him what current titles he would recommend to PP readers: ‘I’d certainly encourage your readers to seek out Legend of a Suicide by David Vann, and Let the Great World Spin by Colum McCann. Both are wonderfully realised novels concerning familial and cultural dysfunction; both are set in an America resonant with loss, longing and ultimately redemption. The writers ask questions of the reader (in terms of their respective narrative structures) but rather than distracting or drawing attention to their cleverness, it serves to highlight the storytelling abilities of both.’

So how did he know that Clerkenwell would be a good place to open a bookshop? ‘Lots of shoe leather was worn out before I decided upon Clerkenwell as the ideal location for my bookshop,’ he reveals. ‘I’m surrounded by a host of NGOs such as Amnesty International and The Children’s Society, as well as a myriad of architects and engineering firms such as Zaha Hadid and Maxwell Hutchinson, not to mention the Arts Council and a welter of publishers from Profile Books on Pine Street, to Old Street Publishing, plus literary agents based all around the green. It’s such a cultural and creative part of London, and has a rich fictional presence, not least as being a key location in many of Dickens’s novels – Oliver Twist, Bleak House and Barnaby Rudge.’

I also have to ask, as the shop carries the name of his 2003 novel, whether he is a fan of Peter Ackroyd. ‘I am indeed. Particularly of his fiction, which I think is rather underrated. As with Iain Sinclair, his fiction is often forgotten and I like to encourage people who enjoy his non-fiction to dip a toe into his other works.’

Only a few months old, there is still that sense of newness, of the shop getting comfortable in its own skin. But things are just getting started: early next year, Peter has plans to begin author readings as well as a book and supper club, making Clerkenwell Tales the hub of literary happenings in the area. The place is well on its way to becoming a classic in its own right.


Clerkenwell Tales
30 Exmouth Market Clerkenwell
London EC1R 4QE

T 020 7713 8135