“We are completely child centric. The whole shop is focussed on how children and young people see and experience the world and children play an important part in our plans and idea”. Not for profit, and described as being “owned by the children who are our community”, Westcliff on Sea’s Jacqson Diego Story Emporium is a delight of a bookshop, and much more besides. It’s an inclusive hub of stories, imagination, information and events, with young people and the community at its welcoming heart.
Read on to find out how the Jacqson Diego Story Emporium came to be, and what they do.
Describe your shop in three words.
Chaotic, Eclectic, Fun.
When was your bookshop born? How did it come about?
Long story short, but in all actuality Jacqson Diego Story Emporium as a bookshop was born by mistake. That said, once it found its way into my head I knew it was what I had always wanted and where I’d always been headed. I was on an academic path prior to that and doing lots of outreach projects with school children at the time; I was also getting frustrated with a number of my students – reading for English degrees – who didn’t seem to like reading.
Over breakfast one Sunday, some friends and I had a conversation about the passion for books we felt as children and discussed the mismatch of reading because you love to get lost in a book, and reading because you feel you have to or you are good at it. This led to an idea to provide fun activities to children to help them find the joy in books on their own terms (regardless of ability or socio-economic circumstances) to help them grow ideas, space, opportunity, fun – whatever they needed.
The aim was to help them find something that would stick with them so that when, as teenagers, they discovered new things to occupy their minds and the grind of exams stopped reading from being escapist, they would remember the fun stuff and the joy of books would call them back to a happy place.
As the idea grew, I realised we would need a children’s bookshop to act as a hub to all my other ideas and the shop finally opened in August 2012.
Tell us about your journey and the changes you’ve seen (and made) along the way.
It’s been a bit bumpy. I always knew that I didn’t want to be in a place you would expect to find a bookshop, so it took some time to find a space and the first shop opened in 2012.
When I was a child I’d visited the old Foyles in Charing Cross Road, and was amazed at the piles of books, the queues, the hullabaloo of it all and I was most put out this fun was for the grown-ups. I wanted a version for me. This was in my mind when I designed the shop, and it was always a bit mismatched and chaotic. We had child height bookshelves around the walls with a couple of units in the middle and cosy area with 2 armchairs and a colouring table. The back office was turned into an activity space after about 6 months and we put in a curved wall to give the effect you were walking into a lighthouse. It helped us establish a base, but due to problems in the building we had to move out in 2015.
By this time, we had established ourselves with a couple of schools that we worked with regularly so I carried on with them, becoming a resident book person in one school and running reading groups in another, while we looked for a new home.
During this time, we also operated as a pop-up bookshop, participated in a couple of festivals and our community activities kept growing. We’ve worked with amazing authors, illustrators, storytellers and organisations along the way.
Finally, after losing out on a couple of properties we found a new permanent home in an old Bank Building about 5 minutes’ walk from the old shop, it’s eclectically decorated, our furniture is child sized and our shop is divided into spaces by a maze of shelves that are constantly moving around as we need them to. Fiction is organised by genre, non-fiction by subject and we only ever use interest ages (both in terms of the shelves and our activities).
There is very little signage, because adult signposting doesn’t make sense to a lot of the children who come in, and there is always someone to ask anyway. When we first opened we were focussed on books for birth – 13 years, now its birth – 18, which means an expanded YA section and a small amount of adult fiction for the 14+ group to dip into.
We also continue to take our activities and books outside of the shop whenever we are asked and we continually adapt to the ideas of our community.
What’s important in a great bookshop? What sets you apart and makes you special?
All bookshops thrive on the fact you can count on a friendly, inclusive welcome with knowledgeable and interested staff. They are places for people to meet and feel part of something. We do this, but we are completely child-centric. The whole shop is focussed on how children and young people see and experience the world and children play an important part in our plans and ideas.
For example, our podcast is completely run by four 11-14-year-olds from the research, interviews and through to the edits and uploads. We have always celebrated diversity and stock a huge range of diverse books. We are not for profit and owned by the children who are our community. It is them that we have to answer to.
What’s your all-time favourite…
…picture book recommendation? I absolutely love Bunnies on the Bus by Philip Ardagh and Ben Mantle (Walker). It works for everyone. But regardless of the age of the child we always want to match them with a book that makes them light up, so it changes all the time.
For example, as a children’s fiction recommendation, I currently love recommending The Secret Detectives by Ella Risbridger (Nosy Crow) because it always surprises the children that I talk to that they have to discover if there is a crime as well as a murderer. The Queen’s Fool by Ally Sherrick is one of the few historical novels for any age that I truly recommend and love and any book by Ross Montgomery because of the wide-ranging appeal and general kookiness. For me, any books that spark a conversation are great fun to recommend and I love sitting on the floor with children surrounded by piles of books.
…YA recommendation? Again, it depends on the young person. “Have you read Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy?” is one of my opening lines, as it tells you a lot about the young person’s interest to hear their responses.
Which books have you been recommending recently?
We’ve just done an event with Simon James Green, so his books have been top of our list, as have Justin Somper’s, Holly Race’s and Anneliese Avery’s for the same reason. Like a Charm by Elle McNicoll has also been going down well and the whole team have been behind Loki by Louise Stowell. We have four book clubs and two weekly Storytimes, so things that go down well with the groups usually move up my recommendation list quite quickly.
What’s your favourite area of your bookshop?
Sitting on the floor of Middle Grade with a pile of books is my happy place but I also love our Picture Book Room, because it’s so comfy with a sofa and colouring table and we have all of our book clubs and story times in there so it feels like it’s filled with great ideas and friendships.
What are you most proud of?
The community we have built is magical and it keeps growing. From the team who work here, to the volunteers, the organisations and facilitators we collaborate with and the customers and children who access our shop and activities, we are always working together to make wonder happen. I love the fact that we have 14-year-olds still coming to our young writers’ events that they first visited at the age of 8, that we get walking buses of school children coming back and forth until the whole primary school has visited for Storytime.
The cubs and brownies all pack in for evenings to work on their book lover badges, children who first came in reluctantly regularly come back to discuss and recommend things to us, and our groups have naturally evolved to be the inclusive and diverse spaces that I always hoped would create an equal playing field for everyone who wants to be involved and is curious in the activity. It’s an absolute privilege to be a part of this community, and the team here is so much fun to work with.
Who would you invite to your dream literary party?
No idea. It would be easier to list who I wouldn’t invite – but I couldn’t do that.
Tell us a secret about books.
They never really exist in a fixed form. We think they do, we can hold them in our hands, but that’s just the vessel used by the authors and illustrators to transport them in. Books only really exist when you read them or listen to them and everyone reads or hears something new. Your understanding of a book is unique and all yours.
Apart from your own shop, which other bookshop(s) do you love spending time in?
All of them! I love spending time in any bookshop. I really love coming across bookshops when I least expect it and just whiling away some time. You never know what you will find.
Discover more about Jacqson Diego Story Emporium:
Online shop: uk.bookshop.org/shop/jacqsondiego
Find more innovative, independent bookshops in our regular Bookshop of the Month series.