Jane Rolo, bookshop owner's story
CLOSE

( JANE ROLO, BOOKSHOP OWNER )

I’m Jane Rolo, and I’m one of the two directors of Book Works.

THE INTERVIEW

We’ve been going for 30 years now; when we started it was the early ’80s, I was already trained as a bookbinder and working in London. I had a studio in Metropolitan Wharf in Wapping, in an old warehouse that was like a hutch dumped in the middle of a big woodworking space. I sent an open letter to a lot of people that I knew in the bookbinding world, people who I knew were interested in publishing, and I asked them if they’d like to set up a centre for book arts. Gradually, a group of five of us came together and decided that we would set up Book Works. I lived in East London and Pella lived in Peckham in South London, so we wanted somewhere that we could both travel to fairly easily. We rented the first arch that we had from the early ’80s until 1994. And then when Book Works started in 1984, we rented two more railway arches.

"My strongest memories of the Market are all the sounds – we continually had trains going overhead and interrupted telephone conversations where you had to say, “Just a minute…” until the train would finish rumbling past. We were only a couple of metres away from these huge trains going overhead!"

Can you remember visiting the area for the first time?

I think the first time was when we went to see the railway arch. Someone must’ve told us that British Rail had arches that they rented out, because I don’t think we would’ve naturally thought of that as a space to rent. It was round about the time when a lot of warehouses were being converted into artists’ studios and I think Wapping was one of the first places that a whole lot of artists gravitated towards. What I remember about those arches is that it was a fairly lonely place. There wasn’t much going on and it was quite run down. Most of the arches that were in the same little row as ours looked out over Southwark Cathedral and were derelict or semi-derelict. There was a lot of rubbish, a lot of rats. It was quite grim!

The arch that we moved into was fairly basic; it had no central heating and no toilet. But the other two arches that we inherited and ran Book Works out of were much more run down and we had to do a lot of work to make them damp-proof. The third arch we kept as a derelict shell – we used to have exhibitions in there with the artists that we were working with. My strongest memories of the Market are all the sounds – we continually had trains going overhead and interrupted telephone conversations where you had to say, “Just a minute…” until the train would finish rumbling past. We were only a couple of metres away from these huge trains going overhead!

Was the state of the arches in the Market much different from Wapping?

It was different in that there weren’t so many artists around. All along Wapping High Street and Wapping Wall there was a lot of art – there was a big colony, about 200-300 artists already operating there. There were two or three cafés: one was Maria’s Market Café. There was one around the corner that I think was called Renato’s, tucked behind Southwark Cathedral. That was our regular one. It was Italian, but it was schooled in pastas and fry-ups, and apple pie and custard. It was very comforting when you didn’t have any central heating! And then there was another one that I think was run by a couple of Turkish guys that sold kebabs and chips.

As well as the cafés, there were some pubs that were open. They started in the early evening and then they must’ve run through the night for Borough Market, because that got going at about midnight. We’d see some of the lorries coming in about half 11, 12, but apart from that it was pretty empty. Then, and importantly for us, there were public toilets. When we first moved in there, there were public toilets in Borough Market and there was a couple that manned them. There was a man in the men’s and a woman in the other one, and she always referred to him as “Man”: “Man isn’t on duty this morning so I’m having to look after both toilets.”

Did you have an artistic community around you?

There were a few artists such as Mike Challenger and a friend of ours called Alastair Brotchie over at Atlas Press on Park Street. There were also some graphic designers that created our black logo, a team called Red Ranch whom we met in the café. They said they wanted to design a logo for us for free, and in exchange they would put it into competitions and things.

The first project we did was with an artist called Cornelia Parker, who then became really successful ¬¬– she was nominated for the Turner Prize one year. She floated some little composite images of London’s skyline on top of lifeguard rings that were tied up to the Kathleen & May [trading schooner]. And we did another project with an artist called Brian Catling who did an installation on the boat and various projects around there. I remember we almost got into trouble with the local police once because we were selling drink on the boat – perhaps I shouldn’t mention this! We didn’t have a license, but there was a friendly PC who used to do the rounds who said, “I’ll come back in an hour and I won’t see any signs of you selling any alcohol.”

"We resisted moving [out from the area] for a while because we were really sad to leave such a lovely area, and the Shoreditch/Old Street area didn’t seem to have anything going for it at the time – it was the back-end of the city and it was miserable. Little did we know how much it was going to change! "

Did you have any sense of the existing community of the area when you moved in?

I suppose the main community was a nighttime one: porters and people involved in the Market. They kept different hours to us so we didn’t really have a lot to do with them, but you’d get to recognise them and know them in that way. And then there was a big community of down-and-out people. There was one guy that occupied the space next to us ¬– it was a space that you’d put rubbish bins in, but I think he lived there part of the time – and in the morning when the Market had finished, he’d go round and collect fruit and veg. Occasionally, he’d knock on our door and give us an old cabbage or cauliflower, so he was quite sweet. I once saw him on the seafront in Brighton, so he obviously wasn’t always in Borough Market! The people like him, the drifters, were friendly when they were there, but then they’d disappear. There were a lot of transient ‘communities’.

Did you get to know some of the local pubs?

We used to go to The Wheatsheaf quite a lot, and one nearer to us called The Globe. That was really good [in the beginning]; we even had a couple of parties in there. It had really old gas heaters that always stank of gas that you could move around, there was always condensation on the window and it had a really great jukebox! But then it got done up – it became like how [the owners] imagined an old pub might look like with sawdust on the floor and we stopped going in there.

The Anchor was really nice because it had little coal fires in each room, and we also went to The George a lot because that was quite old-fashioned; I remember people playing dominoes and things. It had that sort of after-work relaxing, mixed age-group feel to it. After we moved out of Borough Market it became a destination for people from all different parts of London, but it also became part of the tourist trail.

You moved from the area in 1994 – did it seem like the natural time to leave?

I think it did. There were quite a lot of factors in it. After about four years, we stopped doing exhibitions and events in the area itself and decided to concentrate on commissioning work. We realised what we were slowly doing was becoming a publisher, and for that we didn’t need gallery space, we needed different resources.

I think the other factor was that we were fed up of being uncomfortable! No heating; no facilities; the fact that paper and damp spaces don’t go well together. The area was changing as well – there were nudges that were suggesting it was turning into a touristy, heritage circuit. So we started looking for somewhere different and we ended up in Shoreditch [Book Work’s current premises at 19 Holywell Row], which again was another rundown area in the ’90s. Instead of having three railway arches side by side, we had one much bigger space where everything fitted in.

We resisted moving for a while because we were really sad to leave such a lovely area, and the Shoreditch/Old Street area didn’t seem to have anything going for it at the time – it was the back-end of the city and it was miserable. Little did we know how much it was going to change! The transformation here has happened much, much more quickly than the transformation of Borough Market. Who could’ve known that so many artists would move to this area to start with and then so many commercial artists, designers and media. Now there’s a Pret A Manger and a Costa Coffee, not just on every street corner, but every other building.

Have you been back to your old Southwark premises?

Yes, I occasionally go back. I’ve sat in the café that used to be our first arch. Actually, I felt a bit gloomy when I did that, wondering why we lived in that state for so long. And I’ve been to the farmer’s market, which is great. As an area that rejuvenated itself it’s been incredibly successful, but I do get a bit nostalgic for how it used to be. Because it was so central, so near to London Bridge, you’d have all these people commuting into London every day and then leaving again. It was our little forgotten area and it never felt very full.