Hidden Bookshelf 8: Interview with Phlox Books

Hidden Bookshelf 8: Interview with Phlox Books

Wondering around bookshops has been one of my favourite pastimes this rainy July, I’ve been mainly exploring around East London and have discovered so many unique bookshops. One of my favourites is Phlox Books, it’s located on Francis Road, a pedestrianised street in Leyton, perfect for an afternoon stroll. Phlox Books was originally located in Belfast in the 80s, Aimée, the daughter of the original owners re-opened the bookshop in London in 2017, and continued on with the brilliant self-proclaimed mantra of ‘books.booze.coffee’. What makes Phlox Books special is their café/bar in the store, so you can enjoy a drink whilst reading your new book! The staff are also incredibly friendly and helpful, I interviewed Johanna, the Development Manager for Phlox Books, who spoke about what makes Phlox Books special and gave excellent tips for supporting independent bookshops and also some great book recommendations.

1) Tells us a bit about your bookstore! 

“Phlox Books is an independent bookshop in East London which can be found on Leyton’s pedestrianised Francis Road amongst a cluster of other wonderful independents. The bookshop is owned by Northern Irish bookseller Aimee Madill and is inspired by the Parisian style of cafe-bookshops she saw while living there, where customers browse, read and talk about books with a coffee or glass of wine in hand. Alongside a curated selection of contemporary literature and staple and rediscovered classics, Phlox has a fully integrated bar serving coffee, wine, craft beers and depending on the occasion, sometimes a cocktail, mulled wine or spiked hot chocolate. We also have a beautiful selection of children’s books in the back! All of our booksellers love to discuss books and whether it’s the case that you want something very specific out of your reading or are looking for a gift, we’re always happy to help with recommendations. We also like it when people bring their dogs in to say hello!”

2) How has the pandemic affected your bookstore and how have you adapted?

“How Phlox has continued doing business over the last year and a half, has varied depending on government legislation and our own discretion and responsibility based on the rate of the virus spreading. So, it’s been a lot of stopping, starting and readjusting but for the most part, we have remained selling books but just in different ways. At the announcement of a lockdown, the first thing we had to do was redesign the website to accommodate online sales. Aimee had the new website up and running in the first few days and throughout the periods when we were only offering postage and local deliveries by bicycle or only open for click and collect, having the web and email orders has been the most practical and safe way of continuing with sales. Whilst socialising has been restricted, we also put together an interactive online events program in the hopes of offering a little normality and variety. This has included at-home cook-alongs, a hypnobirthing yoga session, literary conversations and children’s storytimes on zoom and Instagram TV. We are currently open for browsing and drinking-in. Our events series and monthly book group are still online but we’re hoping to review this soon.”

3) Has there been a certain genre or book that’s become more popular during the pandemic? Why do you think that is?

“I haven’t really noticed any genre becoming dramatically more popular, there’s maybe been a small increase in sales of golden-age crime or solution based non-fiction, I think both of these genres are reassuring for people in different ways, but nothing that stands out too much. In terms of reading habits, I would say customers are more particular in what they want out of their reading – my most common recommendation is for books which are light, well-written and easy to concentrate on, and I think that’s very fair. I’ve also noticed a more conscious effort among customers to read across a broader range of experiences, countries and cultures since the pandemic Black Lives Matter protests.”

4) What books have been best-sellers recently? Can you tell us a bit about them?

“Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor

Taylor’s fantastic debut novel Real Life was shortlisted for the Booker Prize last year and it’s unsurprising that his new collection of stories has been as popular. Half the vignettes in Filthy Animals follow three guests at a potluck dinner in Wisconsin who pursue a messy but not too messy romantic relationship with each other. This developing storyline is interspersed with independent vignettes connected by themes of modern romance, masculinity, fragility, longing, chaos and disruption. There are also, of course, piercing moments of warmth, kindness and excitement to balance this out. It’s a really well-crafted, thoughtful and engaging portray of modern life.”

“The Feast by Margaret Kennedy

This is such a charming holiday read, perfect for the current geographical restrictions of this British summer. Kennedy’s rediscovered classic, set on the Cornish Coast, opens on the scene of the Pendizack Manor Hotel, buried, along with its guests, under the rubble of a collapsed cliff. Following the week leading up to the incident, the novel unravels the mystery of how these guests came to gather for a moonlit dinner on the night of the landslide, revealing one by one their romantic and sordid relationships with one another. The writing is wickedly clever, psychological and entertaining.”

5) What are your personal favourite reads this month?

“This month my favourite books have been Filthy Animals by Brandon Taylor and City of Night by John Rechy.”

6) Is there a book that you think is underrated? Tell us why we should read it!

“Morvern Callar by Alan Warner. The book opens with Morvern, a local supermarket worker discovering that her boyfriend has taken his life in the flat they share. The first person narration doesn’t give much of her internal life away and there’s a wonderful opaque, sleepwalking feel to her grief, as she continues to go about her daily routine. This is later juxtaposed with a more brutal, calculating, mercenary and morally ambiguous response to the death. Morvern is a really unusual and quietly rebellious character and Warner does a really wonderful job of portraying what life is like for a young person living in a rural Scottish town: work, family life, the chat and nightlife. I say that as someone who grew up on an island town in Scotland”

7) In an era of giant online retailers, what are your top tips for supporting Phlox Books and other local independent bookshops?  

“I think the most important tip is don’t be afraid to use your local book shop as a resource. The people who work at independents tend to be knowledgeable, skilled and genuinely interested in pairing people with books they’ll love. So, if you’re stuck either for yourself or someone else, contact your local bookshop and they’ll be happy to provide you with reading suggestions. At Phlox, you can do this in person or if you’re busy, just phone, send an email or contact us through the website and I promise it will be more reliable, nicer and quicker than sifting through online reviews on gains online retailers. My second tip is to remember that in most cases you can now order through your local bookshop online for in-shop collection or home delivery. Phlox, like a lot of independent bookshops, now has an online shop where we sell a rotating selection of our favourite tiles along with vouchers, subscriptions and tickets for our events and monthly book group. If there’s a book you’re looking for which isn’t for sale on the website, just drop us an email and we will get back to you within the day with its price and availability. If you live locally, we will be able to order the book into the shop for the next day (or the day after, if it falls on the weekend) and you’ll save money on postage. If you don’t, we can arrange for it to be delivered to your house in the next 2-3 days. Independents don’t have the financial backing to build or maintain a website like Amazon, but they do have the access to order you all the same books, with some exceptions, and can have it with you as, if not more, quickly and conveniently.”

On my most recent trip to Phlox Books, I picked up A Touch of Mistletoe by Barbara Comyns, the book is an autobiographical novel of the lives of impoverished two sisters Vicky and Blanche, spanning from the 1920s to the 1960s. I choose this book up because the foreword was written by Megan Nolan, who’s recently released her debut Acts of Desperation, which I mentioned in last month’s blog post, I absolutely loved Megan’s book so I reckoned I’d enjoy anything she’s endorsed.


I’d like to end with a massive thank you to Phlox Books (@phloxbooks)! Make sure to check them out either in-store or online and continue supporting independent bookshops.  If there’s a bookshop you love, I’d love to hear about it!

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