A children’s bookshop that sells only inclusive books? Yes, please! Round Table Books is exactly that and more. An independent store, it opened its doors in Brixton, South London, in 2019 and has been an integral part of the local community ever since. Two important people behind it are Aimée Felone and Meera Ghanshamdas.
Aimée Felone is a co-founder and managing director of the UK-based children’s publishing house Knights Of, which focuses on diversity within its own ranks and in its commissioned writers and illustrators. Since 2019 she has also been a co-owner of Round Table Books. In 2021 Meera Ghanshamdas joined the bookshop’s team as its new director. She previously worked in the bookstores Nomad Books and Moon Lane Books. Both women are advocates for more diverse representation in books as well as in the people who create them.
We talked to Aimée and Meera about inclusive bookshops, Round Table Books’ connection to the local community and the changes that need to happen in the book industry.
Can you tell us a little about the origins of Round Table Books?
Aimée: In 2018, the first Reflecting Realities Report by the Centre for Literacy in Primary Education was published. It showed that only 1% of UK children's books back in 2017 featured a Black, Asian, or Minority Ethnic protagonist. Even though that was far from enough, we decided to celebrate and draw attention to the books that made up that 1% by initiating #ReadTheOnePercent on Twitter. This coincided with Knights Of’s first birthday, so we asked ourselves: Why don’t we just take all of these books that we’re telling people to read and put them in a space where they can come and buy them? We decided to launch a five-day pop-up and sold over 500 books. During that time, customers expressed their need for a permanent bookshop. It got us thinking. If that was what the community was telling us, then that was what we’d do. We set up a crowdfunding campaign with a target of £30,000 and managed to raise nearly £50,000.
Do you feel connected to the local community?
Meera: Definitely. We really wanted to be a strong presence in our community, and there were no independent bookshops in Brixton and the surrounding areas at the time. On top of selling books, we put on a lot of events. Because the shop is quite small, it feels like an intimate gathering in somebody’s living room. In addition, we’ve built partnerships with Brixton Library and a London-based Hospital Trust. We bring authors to the library or support their events programmes throughout the year and have done multiple book pop-ups for different occasions together with Hospital Trust. Next year we want to continue with that and to organize some pop-ups for Pride Month as well. The idea of putting books in a space where they’re not expected is important to us, because it’s not always realistic to expect people to come to you. Accommodating the community is a fundamental trait of a community bookshop. But being close to the community also means reacting to its members’ needs. For example, about a year ago we decided to include adult titles in the store because many 25- to 35-year-olds find their way there. Anyhow, parents who come in to buy books for their children also need titles that resonate with their own experiences. It’s important that they’re reading diverse stories, so that they can communicate related topics to their children.
How do you handle the themes of diversity and inclusion at Round Table Books?
Meera: For us it’s about quality and about being genuinely able to get behind every book. We try to read all the books we’re selling and to discuss them with colleagues, because we want to make sure that they feature great representation. We curate a list of titles that include three of the protected characteristics in UK law, and the intersections in between: race and ethnicity, LGBTQIA+, and ability and neurodivergence. In general, we aim to normalize all experiences. For instance, many children’s books are set in the English countryside. While that is the experience of some children, billions of other children around the world live in urban settings. Those should be reflected in books too. This deep understanding of diversity is what we’re looking for in our staff members. Up to now we have only employed people from diverse backgrounds who resonate with this notion and are open to challenges and debates.
Aimée: Conversations are very important. The name of the bookshop reflects that as well. The name Round Table comes from the old legend about King Arthur and his knights who sit at a round table together, so none of them has a superior position. At Round Table Books everyone is equal.
Meera: But we’re not only having in-house conversations. Talking to other booksellers about their experiences and issues and collaborating with them is crucial to how we operate. We’ve joined the Radical Booksellers Alliance, a group of booksellers around the country whose fundamental beliefs are all about not conforming to the norm, highlighting minority experiences, and radical politics.
Have you seen a push towards more diversity in the industry?
Aimée: Actually, I feel there has been less of a conversation lately and less energy devoted to pushing and publishing diverse authors.
Meera: I agree. Even when diverse authors’ works are published, most publishing houses fail to put enough effort into marketing and publicity. That needs to change. Luckily, many people don’t accept the status quo but question it by, for example, participating in the Twitter campaign What’s wrong with this window? They take pictures of bookshop windows to illustrate the lack of diversity in publishing and bookselling.
If you could choose, would you rather have more inclusive independent bookshops or a more diverse selection in the bookstore chains?
Aimée: I would say both, because it shouldn’t be down to smaller independent bookshops to make sure inclusive titles are available. If the bigger bookshops did as much work as the indies do, then the difference they’d make would be immense.
Meera: Exactly. We don’t want a system in which people assume it’s solely the job of individual booksellers to focus on diversity. We want that commitment across the board.
What are your hopes for Round Table Books’ future?
Aimée: At the moment we’re looking for a new space, which will give us the chance to host different events. It would also be fantastic to allow the community to use the space however it wants to.
Now that you’ve shared how you define inclusive books, I’m curious to know if you have any book recommendations.
Aimée: I would recommend Girlhood Unfiltered, a collection of essays by twenty young Black and mixed Black girls talking about their own experiences. They’ve created something that’s important to them now, instead of becoming adults and then wishing they’d had a book like that. It’s published by Knights Of and the idea behind it was to give young Black girls room to vocalize their needs. To make the project a reality, we teamed up with the Brixton-based charity Milk Honey Bees, which provides a safe space for young girls to express themselves creatively and gives them access to opportunities.
Meera: I want to pick Manorism by Yomi Sode. It’s a poetry collection that gives a panoramic view of the experience of a Black man living in Britain. There’s an outstanding sensitivity in the writing.