John Kennedy from Chener Books sadly passed away earlier this year. To us, he was an obvious choice to be the cover star of the very first edition of The Dulwich Diverter. Below is the original interview we did back in May 2016…
Words: Jessica Cargill Thompson; Photo: Lima Charlie
There’s something about Chener Books that’s refreshingly rebellious in the context of modern East Dulwich. Proudly unconventional, it divides local opinion: some people tend to be affronted by its refusal to conform to the standard template of a modern-day bookshop, while others love it for precisely that reason.
Some say Chener and its owner John Kennedy haven’t changed in living memory; certainly one of the only things I can recall that’s altered since 2000 is that they’ve finally fixed the ceiling leak that used to drip into a bucket by the door.
For the past four decades, John has been part of the furniture of Lordship Lane, his familiar frame hunched over his desk in the shop window by the bus stop. His is one of the longest standing businesses on the road (Bells, Farmer’s and “a couple of the curry places” beat him). Social media fans may recognise him as the white-haired poster boy for the Dulwich Diverter crowdfunding campaign.
Inside the shop, books are everywhere – all 23,248 of them to be precise (for a sense of scale, Dulwich Books on Croxted Road has around 4,500 titles). They are stacked in piles, in boxes and in plastic bags, like the home of an elderly and rather forgetful relative. They are also crammed into the floor-to-ceiling shelves that line the space – the originals that John built in 1983.
There’s rarely more than one copy of anything in stock, either – the Chener philosophy is to sell a few editions of more books rather than load up with multiple copies of bestsellers.
But don’t be fooled by what might look like chaos. John can deftly pinpoint any title he’s got in stock (and order one in by lunchtime the next day if he hasn’t).
Hidden at the back of the shop is a children’s room, which is also packed with rummage tubs of board books and toddler-height trays of picture books, as well as all the classics – from Robert Louis Stevenson to Julia Donaldson – and a special section of dyslexia friendly publications.
Once a customer has made a purchase, the sale is entered by hand into a ledger. Technology does not loom large at Chener, as anyone who has tried to look the business up online will know.
“When I was younger, bookshops just used to sell lots of books,” John says. “Now they sell teddy bears, calendars, mugs… All we sell is books. And we jam them in, spine out. In most bookshops these days they’re face out. We’ve never changed.
“We’re old-fashioned,” he adds, as if that much wasn’t already obvious. “We haven’t really got into the 21st century yet. They should have extended the 20th century.”
John is a Dulwich boy born and bred. He attended Dulwich Hamlet Junior School before winning a London County Council scholarship to Dulwich College. After a few years working as a civil servant, he opened Chener Books in 1978 at 52 Grove Vale (now Blackbird Bakery).
“When we finally managed to get a place on Lordship Lane in 1983, a lot of these shops were void or boarded up,” he says. “In the old days a number of shopkeepers used to live above their work, so when they retired they’d just board up the shop and live upstairs.”
Of course, Lordship Lane has completely changed since the 1980s, with the only remaining fixture that John can see from his window being the East Dulwich Tavern. He laments casualties of the times, such as the stationer (currently Question Air) and the Irish community centre (now ED Picturehouse), which used to run tin-whistle classes.
“It’s becoming increasingly difficult to run a bookshop, especially round here,” he says. “The rents are stonking. When I started I think there were 3,000-plus shops on the independent booksellers’ list; the figure at the close of 2015 was 894. That’s quite a change.”
It’s lucky then that, as the freeholder of his site, John doesn’t have to worry about being overly commercial. “I expect if you check the Bookseller top 50, we’ll have about two or three of the bestselling titles in stock. That’s just not what we do.
“We select what we fancy. We respond to customers’ interests and requests and we take absolutely no notice of bestsellers. With all these years behind us, we’ve got a good idea of the demographic out there and the sorts of things they buy.”
The shop’s central display table is buckling under the weight of some of the most recent publications that John has judged may appeal to his customers – and it’s a tellingly eclectic mix.
Books range from Pevsner’s guide to church architecture and John Betjeman on trains, to niche topics such as heirloom plants, the history of suicide, dolphin intelligence, and the sex lives of the kings and queens of England.
Books on neuroscience, physics and legal history suggest that the average Chener customer is a well-educated, highly intelligent beast. And what’s the shop’s bestseller? The latest cookbook perhaps, or the new Julian Barnes? “Beowulf,” says John. “We’ve sold about 30 copies of that since Christmas.”
John’s refusal to play the game is sometimes mistaken for being dour or disinterested, but his maverick playfulness comes through in Chener’s legendary window displays, which even have their own fan Instagram account. It’s not run by John, of course – although he can occasionally be found making outspoken interjections on the East Dulwich Forum.
While some themes are obvious – Easter, Christmas, Mother’s Day – others are more cryptic: a book on cooking with lentils next to a children’s book about farting; a display of cannibalism literature infiltrated by a manual on kitchen knife skills; and The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying by Marie Kondo sitting on an otherwise empty shelf.
Eagle-eyed shoppers and bus users may also have spotted one of his latest teases – a couple of children’s books on how to look after your pet goldfish next to a sushi cookbook.
John’s playfulness also makes him a very slippery interviewee.
“What do you read?” I ask.
“I don’t read. It’s a waste of time.”
“No, seriously, you must read something?”
“Why do you need a book when there’s real life and interesting customers to talk to?”
I finally winkle out of him that it’s actually fiction that is off his list at the moment. Instead he’s been devoting his time to reading about history, geology and archaeology while researching the history of East Dulwich.
“Since I started about six years ago I’ve discovered there are very many errors in the history books about the area,” he says. So can we expect a book from him? “I don’t think so. I can’t write for toffee so what I’ll need to do is join with someone who can make it legible and sensible.”
I wonder why the shop is called Chener Books. “I told [local historian] John Beasley that it was based on a government filing system, and he went and printed it in one of his books, so it’s up to you whether you think it’s true.” Well, he was once a civil servant, so it’s a plausible explanation…
As well as supporting other local historians – recent publication The Dulwich Notebook by former Museum of London curator Mireille Galinou seems particularly popular – John also stocks vintage Ordnance Survey maps of the local area (possibly breaking his own “just books” rule) and is excited about a print of one of the earliest maps of East Dulwich, dating back to the 1790s when it was the manor of Frerne.
As we chat, a steady stream of customers and neighbours come and go – picking up or placing orders and stopping for a natter. There are requests for Dr Seuss, Russian travel guides, specialist books on plastics, Knausgaard’s A Death in the Family, and a history of the Easter Rising. You really can’t predict what a Chener customer will ask for next.
“The best thing about being here is our customers,” John says. “You get all these interesting conversations. Sometimes there’ll be several people talking in the shop and someone else will chime in – it’s almost like a free salon from the 18th century. It’s good stuff.”
Sadly the end of an era may be approaching. On my visit John was just attaching the Blu-Tack to an advertisement for a full-time shop manager so he can take more of a back seat in the business – although a fortnight later I find him still debating with himself whether or not to display it.
He tells me that he doesn’t have the time to train up someone new with the spring stock to unpack and new shelves to build; but I suspect it’s a deeper reluctance. After all, the shop is him and he is the shop.
“I don’t know how long I’ll keep going,” he says. “I’d like to see our 40th birthday. If we do get someone else in that doesn’t mean I won’t come and annoy everyone.”
There’s no denying that John will be a unique act to follow and finding a suitable successor will be hard. “The whole thing about this job is that you’ve got to know about lots of things and you’ve got to be able to engage with customers,” he says. “But someone’s got to keep this place going after I’ve snuffed it – even just to stick two fingers up at those who say bookshops are dying.”
Chener Books is at 14 Lordship Lane, 020 8299 0771. Open Monday to Saturday 10am-6pm.