By Sam Burt
This issue we speak with Bex Hughes, founder of Ninja Book Box, to talk about the upcoming London Bookshop Crawl, which she describes as “a weekend spent indulging a love of bookshops, exploring London and meeting fellow book lovers.” A confessed bookshop fanatic, Bex lives in Kent with her husband Rhys, another key player in organising this yearly event.
Bex grew up in Greater London but tells me that it was only after she moved to Kent in her twenties that she realised the sheer wealth of bookshops the capital has to offer. “I didn’t know anybody who’d love spending an entire day in bookshops with me, so I took to Twitter to see if there were any takers, and the rest is history…”
The reaction was enthusiastic from the start, and the event has continued to grow into what is now its seventh year. “We have people who have participated every year since the start,” Bex tells me. “Until 2020 we even had people who would fly in from other countries to participate!”
Booksellers are especially grateful to have customers coming through their doors during February, a typically “slow and depressing month,” not least for retail. Despite this growing fan base, she still describes it as “a socially antisocial event…as a person with social anxiety myself, it’s important to me that we can bring people together to connect without being overwhelmed, and bookshops provide the perfect space for that.”
Indeed, one of the strengths of the event is its inclusivity. Anyone interested in taking part can download a Welcome Pack on a pay-as-you-feel basis from the website, containing maps, local itineraries and a “Big List” of participating shops. While there are scheduled online events and ticketed local bookshop tours, people are free to go off and explore on their own and can get involved however suits them – the online dimension even enables people to take part from outside of London.
On challenges she has faced, Bex cited an unexpected rapid growth in numbers during the first two years (from thirty to around 140 people), as well as – inevitably – COVID-19, which forced the event to go 100% online in 2021. Even so, she describes last year’s event as “completely joyous” since it allowed access to so many people who would not otherwise have been able to take part. Longer term, she states that the geography of Greater London is a challenge, particularly “further-out bookshops that don’t have other bookshops clustered nearby,” and is busy planning how to improve the event’s reach.
Another obvious challenge is juggling the work of organising the crawl with her other commitments, principally the Ninja Book Box, a book subscription service supporting and spotlighting indie publishers and small presses. Each year, Bex starts work on the crawl around August, ramping up to full-time involvement in December. She reflects that the event is only possible with “invaluable help from our wonderful volunteers and my family.” Despite its challenges, organising the event has greatly boosted her confidence over the years and has been something of an emotional rollercoaster: “I’ve had some wonderful chats with some of my favourite booksellers, some of whom have reduced me to tears – in the best way, of course!”
It has to be said that none of this would be possible without the rich independent bookshop scene in London. Veteran Bookshop Crawl participant and LGBTQIA book specialist Gay’s the Word have called it “one of the most joyous and invigorating events of the bookselling year,” while Word on the Water – a unique floating “bookbarge” at King’s Cross – deem it “a winter highlight.” Last but not least, Central London’s Gosh Comics told us:
“Best of all, it brings people through our doors who are discovering the medium of comics for the first time. It binds book enthusiasts across the capital and beyond… long may it continue.”
Thank you to Bex for talking to us about the London Bookshop Crawl! This year’s Crawl runs from Friday 18 to Sunday 20 February: follow the event’s Twitter page for updates @BookshopCrawlUK and download your Welcome Pack from the website.