Heather Belcher and Polly Welsby outside Jambala © Social Streets C.I.C

The quiet charm of the Buddhist bookshop, Jambala

Kindness, inclusivity, and courtesy are just some of the qualities championed by Jambala, a Buddhist bookshop of Lilliputian size

Akin to a family-run café firmly rooted in the community, or a well-used neighbourhood corner shop, no one seems to be quite sure when Jambala made its first appearance on one of the prettiest streets in Bethnal Green, Globe Road.

And Jambala is one of the prettiest shops on this picture-postcard road. The shop front would look very in-keeping on a rom-com film set: it’s painted in a gentle duck-egg blue; its astragal windows display a selection of carefully arranged books; the glass front door bears a  ‘we are open’ sign hung by hessian rope, and the words ‘Jambala Bookshop’ are painted in that creamy-yellow font found on Victorian and Edwardian circus posters (it’s called Latinidad for the fontanistas out there).

Its quaint charms continue inside. Books are pleasingly arranged by genre: fiction takes up most of the right-hand wall. Other topics include cooking, textiles, architecture, and travel. The books are ordered by author’s surname and many of them look to be in excellent condition, some are even brand new. Despite its Lilliputian size, a bibliophile would get lost in this vast collection of words.

Such is the pristine presentation of the shop that the shop’s manager, Heather Belcher, a welcoming woman with a warm smile, says with quiet pride: ‘New customers often don’t realise we are a second-hand bookshop and that feels like a compliment.’

And a fitting compliment it is too. Where some second-hand shops can feel overwhelmingly busy, Jambala is no jumble sale. Rather, it inculcates a sense of peace and tranquillity.

Given its zen-like atmosphere, it will come as little surprise to learn that the shop is part of the London Buddhist Centre, which is found next door in the old Bethnal Green Fire Station. By shopping at Jambala, you are contributing to the Centre’s work including its many events and activities for the benefit of the local community.

The day-to-day running of Jambala is overseen by Belcher and Belcher’s second-in-command, a softly spoken Polly Welsby, as well as a small army of volunteers who are all all practicing Buddhists. On the day we arrived, their volunteer of around six months, Judith Sunderland, was lending a hand.

To work at Jambala one must agree to abide by Buddhism’s principles of Team Based Right Livelihood. This means working and earning a living that does no harm to others.

And this shop fulfills that criteria in abundance. Not only is it second-hand, thereby minimising waste, it also sells recycled wrapping paper, old records, and candle holders and oil burners made from old copper. 

This sustainable ethos extends even to the books’ life cycle, with Welsby pointing out: ‘We even sometimes can get the same book again, and again, and again, and it’s quite nice because it has that feeling of a circular economy.’

Belcher further explains this: ‘Our ethos links in with looking after the environment, and leading a less hedonistic lifestyle.’

Those who volunteer, donate, and buy from Jambala are part of the Centre’s wider ‘Sangha’, a Buddhist term for community. In keeping with this inclusive Sangha, our conversation was natural and free-flowing without a hint of any hierarchy between the two employees and volunteer. When one person was unsure how to answer a question, another chipped in without hesitation.

Alongside their volunteers, the store’s customers are also part of the community. These include ardent booklovers, passers-by, students from the nearby Queen Mary University, and parents picking up their children from school. They even have one father who enjoys the shop so much that he comes in most afternoons before collecting his son from the primary school 50 metres up the road.

For Belcher, this is a testament to the shop’s high turnover of stock: it is unusual for books to be on the shop floor for longer than two months. Belcher says: ‘We want customers to come back again and again, and offer them something new.’ This is noticed by their customers, whose feedback, as Belcher notes, has been that ‘the bookshop never looks the same twice.’

Jambala’s big draw is its wide-ranging collection of quality second-hand books. To buy one is, as Sunderland aptly likens it, to ‘live in a house that has a lot of history’: the small inscriptions left behind, the scribbles of annotated notes on the pages’ edge, or even postcards and letters secretly stashed away. 

But Jambala’s other big draw is the fact that it is modest, as if it hasn’t quite realised what a gem it truly is. And in this day and age where everything needs to be announced with a metaphorical megaphone, Jambala gets on with its work in a quiet manner. Echoing the shop’s namesake, the Buddhist god of wealth and prosperity, a visit to Jambala will leave you feeling content, enriched, fulfilled.

If you enjoyed this article, then read our guide about the five best charity shops around Roman Road.

 


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