Vicki Shenkin Kerr outside her new store Bard Books on the Roman Road
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A bar in a bookshop? The new independent bookstore on Roman Road 

Stocking a range of literature from canonical classics and poetry to the latest climate fiction, Bard Books is a modern and wholesome hub of community, croissants and all-around good vibes. 

Bard Books has been open for less than a week, but imagining the Roman without it is difficult already. The sleek, independent bookshop is a peaceful sanctuary on an otherwise busy high street, offering a moment, or hours, of bookish respite.

The great thing about a bookshop is that there’s no expectation to buy anything. Of course, we often leave their midst with a self-gift or two, but these vital spaces are first and foremost hubs where we can relax, recharge, and be swiftly transported into a distant world.

Stores like Bard Books are examples of ‘third places’: much-loved local haunts that are neither home nor the workplace, but which we rely on for a sense of community and everyday socialising, with friends or strangers. Covid reminded many of us how much we take third places for granted, despite the fact they’re the lifeblood of our high streets and fundamental to our mental health.

Bard Books was just a dream before it became everyday reality for owner Vicki Shenkin Kerr.  ‘Opening a bookshop is something that I’ve probably talked about for about 20 years, but never talked about it as a reality,’ she told me as we sat down in the busy store on its fourth day. Since opening, it’s been rammed with mums and babies, pensioners and students, all flocking to pick up a colourful hardback and a cup of tea.

On the shelves, you’ll find the biggest hits of 2024 like Jennifer Belle’s Swanna in Love and Lottie Hazell’s Piglet, but also classics like Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita for those craving a disturbing read. There are sections dedicated to love, sex and gender, self-care, and a shelf full of books about London, featuring Alistair Von Lion and Tim George’s East End Pubs.

Each month the store will take on a new theme, reflective of ‘things that we think are important to our local community,’ Kerr says. ‘We have a lot of people in our community that feel really passionate about climate change, so we thought let’s do a feature focus on that for our opening.’

Near the entrance, there’s a table devoted to fiction and non-fiction by Palestinian authors, featuring Palestine, Land and People by Nabil Anani and In the Presence of Absence by Mahmoud Darwish. It’s part of Kerr’s intention to platform underrepresented authors from diverse backgrounds. ‘We really just wanted to give them a space to be front and forward, which you don’t get in a bigger, more corporate kind of bookshop, or WHSmith, for example.’

To the left of the entrance, there’s a cafe area serving coffee, tea, croissants, and wine and beer from 11am. Soon, Kerr intends to hold evening events – from author Q&As and scratch nights to slam poetry, book clubs and collaborations with Chisenhale Art Place  – where she promises cocktails will be flowing.

The evening events are about fostering an inclusive, creative community in an area rich with talent but lacking in gathering spaces. ‘I’ve lived off the Roman Road for about 14 years,’ says Kerr. ‘There are so many really interesting, creative people around here, but there’s not ever really been that much of a creative outlet for that. I wanted to create somewhere that felt really accessible – a safe place to explore that creativity.’

Before it opened, some people online accused Bard Books of being another pastel-coloured, east London gimmick, alienated from locals, but that’s far off. ‘I don’t want to be a pretentious, literary, intimidating place. I just wanted it to feel somewhere that everyone and anyone could use,’ Kerr says.

There’s a cosy children’s section towards the back of the store, full of picture books and young adult fiction. Inside, there’s a huge, ancient-looking chest for parents to deposit old children’s books in exchange for something new, making childhood reading cheaper and more exciting.

Beyond the children’s section is a room dedicated to art, design and fashion. There’s a long table where you can study with your laptop and a coffee, read quietly, or even begin writing your first book. It’s currently quite plain and Kerr plans to develop the space, but it’s already popular among locals.

Behind the store, there’s also a charming garden space with huge potential to be a quaint tea garden for when the weather brightens up for more than a few hours. Some people may remember this space when it was Chesterfield’s family-friendly cafe. You can already imagine the area filled with bookreaders, friends meeting over tea, and mums and babies, enjoying a few hours in the sun.

While Kerr is committed to keeping Bard Books an accessible and open space for everyone, the bookshop industry is notoriously hard. Following the disruption of online bookselling from the likes of Amazon in the early 2000s, the number of independent bookshops in the UK reached a nadir of 867 in 2016, a drop from 1,894 in 1995.

A return to reading during the pandemic and a general movement back to analogue has seen numbers creeping up, rising to 1,063 in 2023. Nothing beats being able to leaf through a book before buying, smelling its pages and feeling its weight and texture before choosing it to be our next ‘friend’, and with a bookshop on our doorstep, it’s even more efficient than shopping online.

After six years of promising growth, the net number of independent bookshops in the UK fell by 0.8% in 2023. But pitched as it is to the local community, Bard Books has every chance of bucking the trend.

If you enjoyed this article, you might like Grounded: An all-day cafe with a turn-of-the-century brasserie vibe on Bow Road

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