West End Lane Books: West Hampstead’s much loved bookshop celebrates 25 years in business

Kim Morris, Ghassan Fergiani and Danny Van Emden at West End Lane Books. Picture: Polly Hancock

Kim Morris, Ghassan Fergiani and Danny Van Emden at West End Lane Books. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

Independent bookshops are one of the best loved features in the high street.

West End Lane Bookshop outside. Picture: Polly Hancock

West End Lane Bookshop outside. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

West End Lane Books is one of them. With a loyal customer base from Camden and further afield, it’s become a popular fixture in West Hampstead. Later this month it celebrates 25 years since owner Mohammed Fergiani flung the doors open.

His son, Ghassan, is still at the helm, and reveals that the family would never have opened the bookshop, if it wasn’t for the late-Libyan dictator Muammar Gaddafi.

“My father started his book business in the 1950s and opened a small shop, and started publishing. It was one of his passions.

“But by the 1970s, Gaddafi had his ‘Green Book,’ and we’re no longer workers, we’re partners [in the economy]. At this time he had three shops in Libya, in Tripoli, and another in Egypt. They took his stock and by 1979 his life was in danger.”

Mohammed brought his young family to London, where he set up a publishing company in Knightsbridge.

“We were driving around and stopped in West Hampstead for a coffee at a café over the road. We saw the shop was for sale, and my father said: ‘We will take it.’”

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Ghassan, who lives in Chalk Farm, recounts the story of how his father first got interested in books while playing outside in the street as a child. He saw, inside, an Italian boy had something he had never seen before, and he told him it was a book.

After looking inside and seeing the words and pictures he was transfixed, and begged his parents to let him go to school.

West End Lane Books - interior. Picture: Polly Hancock

West End Lane Books - interior. Picture: Polly Hancock - Credit: Archant

“They said: ‘We can’t afford it.’ But he carried on for three or four weeks until they let him,” said Ghassan.

While there, he learned Italian, Arabic and English. “It changed his life, and if you think about it, all of ours as well.”

Two-and-a-half decades since the shop opened, it has changed hugely. Downstairs is Ghassan’s Fergiani Books, the publishing company that he carried on after his father died in 2011. The shop itself has the usual displays, categories and books you would expect, but somehow feels like stepping back in time into a different world. The staff know many of the regular customers, some of whom will call in for a chat as they are walking down West End Lane.

A staff member has even been asked to mind somebody’s stuffed parrot before.

West End Lane books before it opened in 1994. Picture: West End Lane Books

West End Lane books before it opened in 1994. Picture: West End Lane Books - Credit: Archant

Danny Van Emden, events and marketing manager who has worked in the shop for nine years said: “He just walked in and said ‘Can you look after this until I’m back from work?’ We had great time tweeting things about the parrot. ‘Still here, still stuffed.’”

In contrast to the ex-parrot, two animals which haven’t shuffled off this mortal coil are the shop’s goldfish, Canongate and Faber, sponsored by the publishers after a Twitter poll.

The bookshop has an avid social media following, with nearly 10,000 followers on Twitter who are party to book recommendations, discounts and Danny’s sidewards look at the world.

She said: “It’s all a bit of fun, but can be quite addictive. I’ve been told off before by my husband for being on it all the time!”

Shoppers will regularly see Danny and shop manager Kim Morris sparking off each other – and, sat amongst giant teddy bears Tedgar and Tedwina in the children’s section, it’s clear to see why.

“There’s not a day that goes by when I don’t cry laughing, and we’re in constant touch about all sorts of things, including Arsenal,” said Danny.

As well as selling books, they also furnish school libraries with books, and have done packages for people for birthday presents.

“People often do things like ask us to build up a library for a new grandchild,” said Kim. “We’ve also provided a book a month for someone as a present as well. I’d like us to do more of that, and curate book lists,” added Danny.

Out of the time they’ve worked there, standout events they have organised include astronaut Chris Hadfield speaking at St John’s Wood Synagogue and talks by authors including Ian Rankin.

To celebrate, the shop is holding a “bookshop lock-in” on the evening of April 16, to toast the years of success for the store. There will also be a 25 per cent discount for customers.

“I like the service we provide to the community,” said Ghassan, looking back to the time since it opened. “We don’t make loads of money, but the bookshop pays for itself, we keep people working and customers love coming in. You can’t put any price on that.”