BOOKS is south-east London’s ultimate independent second-hand zine and bookshop. Until recently, it was nestled down an alleyway on Rye Lane in Peckham, a street that its owner Peter Willis calls “without doubt, the greatest on planet earth”.
He has a point. Rye Lane is a melting pot of 24/7 commotion and activity, its characteristic hustle and bustle only slightly diminished by the pandemic. Home to rowdy fruit stands, rowdier bars, a multitude of beauty salons and corner shops, it feels fitting for such an unpretentious space as BOOKS to sit among these local fixtures.
Literature aficionado Peter Willis opened up shop in 2016 and since then, BOOKS has carved out a reputation for including an eclectic selection of cheap, high quality reading material which caters to the most discerning of bookworms – weather permitting, as the space is more akin to a market stall than a fancy, four-walled shop.
32-year-old Willis describes his foray into bookselling as “all different aspects of my life converging”. An avid zine collector and independent publisher that has been in the biz for over 15 years, he studied illustration at Camberwell College of Arts before embarking on various stints working in gallery bookshops, which he still does now.
A desire to sell his own zines and share the second-hand bits he could get his hands on culminated in the birth of BOOKS. “This has always been a side thing,” Willis tells THE FACE. “It doesn’t make enough to support me, but it’s self-sustaining and that’s as much as I can ask. As long as I make enough to pay the shop rent, buy more books and have a little left over, it’s all good.”
This spontaneous, uninhibited attitude to running a business is what makes BOOKS such a genuinely wonderful space, providing a sense of community and enjoyment for its patrons.
Initially, the main point of inspiration for the shop was a DIY spot in New York called Troll Hole, “an amazing queer sex and zine shop inside a laundromat,” Willis continues. “The people behind it worked out a deal with the owners to build this little room in the corner. It was run by a collective, so the opening times would be like, X finishes work at 6pm so we’ll be open from then until midnight. Super transparent.”
Seeing that opening such a space was possible in New York – which is just as challenging and expensive as it is in London – motivated Willis, who mimicked the way it operated. “I’d post the shop’s opening times when I got the rota from my other job, and most people got it. If you check our Google reviews, there are a couple of comments about erratic opening hours, but that’s just how it is!”
There’s a mutual understanding between Willis and his customers that sometimes, life does get in the way of stuff you actually want to do. He makes it work, fostering a great relationship with them in the process.
As of January, BOOKS has moved from its signature spot down Rye Lane to a weather-proof space a few minutes away, at 20 Maxted Road. “I’ve been standing outside for five years and was starting to lose the plot,” Willis says. “Now I can finally stop checking the weather app every ten minutes for the rest of my life.”
As a rule, he doesn’t usually care for fancy signed editions (which is part of the shop’s appeal), though he did find a signed book by Ghanaian writer Ayi Kwei Armah once, which he kept.
“My favourites are often ones I’ve never heard of but just appear and change your life. There’s some cosmic, serendipitous energy to the book hunt for sure,” Willis says. Though zines, admittedly, are his first love.
Some of his favourites at the moment include Brooklyn-based ROT (“which I bang on about at any opportunity”) and The Wonder of It All (“which is super eclectic and meandering in the best way, and very prolific”.) Anything put out by Spaghetti Club, a workshop at a primary school in East London, “is complete genius and often flies out on the same day it comes in”.
Ultimately, Willis’ favourite thing about running BOOKS is the excitement of turning up to a house clearance and having no clue what he’ll walk out with, or seeing someone drag a big bag of second-hand bits up the cobbles to his shop.
“I’m pretty nosey and I love books. I’d happily spend every hour of every day scouring the shelves of second-hand bookshops, so having an excuse to do it regularly is ideal,” he says. Pandemic or not, BOOKS has lost none of its charm, offering respite to its loyal clientele with an irreverent Instagram presence in the absence of IRL communication.
Meanwhile, Willis has readings and workshops up his sleeve for when the world is allowed to re-open. Look out for his next Review of Books newsletter, which includes brilliant reviews and contributions from some of his regulars. “That’s it, no other plans. But something always crops up.”