The Bermondsey Bookshop by Mary Gibson – A book shop which changes lives

The Bermondsey Bookshop: A heart-wrenching saga of love and loss ...

The Bermondsey Bookshop by Mary Gibson


A novel set in part in a bookshop will always attract me, and this bookshop is not a fictional idea but an actual establement run on the very best principles of opportunity and encouragement to all. Moreover, Kate is a young woman with many gifts, but so many circumstances are against her that the book is a document of survival, and a fascinating story of a life. Set mainly in the streets of Bermondsey, this novel is set in the early 1920s in the poorer part of London with excursions into the more expensive areas for a girl who has an obsession with finding her father. It is a big book with so much research and inventive plotting that it is an engaging read. Kate is an interesting character with her determination and frequent changes of mind, her loyalty and love for those who try to help her. The real, non fictional person in this novel is Ethel Gutman who started the bookshop in 1921, with the stated aim “To bring books and the love of books into Bermondsey” by enabling all members to buy books by small installments. Gutman also organises lectures and classes which are free to attend, and it is while working here that Kate meets many people who will influence and change her life. I found this an interesting and well written book with a memorable set of characters and a unique setting.


The book opens with the appalling treatment of Kate in her Aunt Sylvie’s house, where she has grown up with the story of her mother’s accidental death and her father’s depositing of her until he could make his fortune. Kate is set to work in a tin works, despite the dangers from hot tin and metal fever from the fumes. She proves to be a talented and considerate worker. When she is thrown out of the house for fighting back, she is forced to find additional employment in order to continue renting her garret from which her mother fell. She finds employment in the bookshop and is encouraged by the people who go there, including a clever young artist. She impresses everyone with her resilience and intelligence, including the women who volunteer to help with the mission of the shop. When she meets an old school friend they decide that they have both changed over the years. Bermondsey, however, is not a safe place, and there are those who wish her ill. When she first meets the beautiful and cold Nora, she is struck by her fragility, and wants to discover more about the beautiful young woman.


As the book proceeds, the challenges Kate must meet are huge, and there are choices she must make. Her compassion and determination transform her life and the lives of those around her. There is a love of learning which is at the heart of Kate’s story and at least one of the other characters has their life changed by the opportunities presented by the bookshop. This is a well written saga with a good plot, credible characters and a well drawn setting. It is to be recommended to all saga fans.    


Bookshops are of course an interesting topic at the moment, with queues outside and reports of increasing sales of books. While the lockdown was at its height there were difficulties in obtaining printed books, as well as launching new titles. Cogito Books in Hexham provided much needed books and chat which helped.  I see now that they are offering  pop up counter in the front of their shop with advice and recommendations, as well as continuing  to post books out (hurrah) and rather wonderfully – browsing appointments – in the latter part of the afternoon. I think I would be tempted to do a sort of supermarket sweep with a large basket – while I am lucky enough to have a fair few recent books, I’m sure I could find more to buy! Do any of you work in bookshops? Are there temptations?