The Bookshop

THAP Bookshop opened in 1977 in a crumbling, mice-infested building in Watney Market. But as with the other blocks that made up the project, it was set upon the firm foundations of previous work.

Bonnie, Alan Gilbey (19) and another THAP worker advertise a theatre workshop outside THAP.

In 1973, there was not a single bookshop in the whole of Tower Hamlets; the borough that had spawned such writers as Isaac Rosenberg, Bernard Kops, Mary Wollstonecraft and Arnold Wesker.

Denise Jones said:

‘There was a group of local people who were not prepared to put up with this we realised that we would have to start one – but start small. Stepney Books began as a Saturday stall in Whitechapel Market where we sold Penguin’s disgarded proof copies alongside THAP and Centerprise local history publications.’

This do-it-yourself initiative inspired the creation of a bookstall at the month-long ‘Big Show’ in 1976, run by young and enthusiastic members of the Basement Writers, and its success strengthened the project’s resolve to create a permanent outlet.

The two-storey building that it secured also housed the project offices. Alan GilbeyRoger Mills and Alice Bigelow were the first paid employees.

Cutting from Time Out, 1979.
Roger Mills (21) and Alan Gilbey (19) behind the counter at THAP Bookshop, 59 Watney Street.

For many locals, this was their first experience of entering a bookshop. Some assumed it to be a library, and things didn’t always run smoothly; kids nicked stock, there were break-ins, outsiders and drunks came in to seek solace and every day brought a new funding crisis.

Leaflet drawn by Alan Gilbey, 1979. Above the bookshop were THAP offices and creative workshop spaces.

From the very start, the shop stocked a range of locally produced books, prints and community newspapers. And with an ordering service (which would sometimes lose the bookshop money) people could get almost any book in the world they wanted!

During the late 1970s, it also became the place to buy punk badges and records from those suppliers deemed to be sympathetic to the ‘we’ll do it ourselves’ ethos.

In 1980, the shop relocated to a bigger building in Whitechapel near the London Hospital, its expansion being led by Denise Jones and Richard Sylvester.
Richard Sylvester in the Bookshop at 178 Whitechapel Road, (note the radical magazines in the foreground).
An illustration by Alan Gilbey of the new premises.

In 1994, a new name was adopted – Eastside. As with the original site, the upstairs rooms hosted meetings by local writers groups and a range of community organisations.

In the larger premises, guest readings and book launches increased, poets Mike Rosen and Adrian Mitchell, and writers Andrea Levy, Rachel Lichtenstein, Hanif Kureshi and Jeanette Winterson among them.

This tradition has continued in the Brick Lane Bookshop where writers Sarah Waters, James Sallis, Beryl Bainbridge, Lionel Shriver, Jennifer Worth, Sarah Wise, Iain Sinclair and many others have read from their works at packed events.

Arup Chakravati (bookshop assistant) and Fiona Mottershaw (bookshop manager).
Cutting the Eastside 21st anniversary cake in a marquee outside the bookshop on Whitechapel Road. Left-Right: Chris Lilly (background), Pippa Andrews, Labli Begum and Dr Clare Bland (far right).

In Whitechapel the project also gained a reputation as efficient and imaginative school suppliers, while managed by Nicola Samson. The shop became a specialist in dual language books, including Arabic, Japanese, Gujerati, Bengali, Somali, Urdu and Vietnamese.

The transport system in Tower Hamlets was lacking in the 70s and 80s making it difficult for people to travel across the borough to the bookshop.

The bookshop’s philosophy was to take books out into the community. So we employed an Outreach worker who ran bookstalls at playgroups, school events, conferences and open-air festivals, bringing books to more people.