Tributes paid to ‘inspirational’ founder of famous Muswell Hill bookshop
- Credit: Veronica Kennard
The founder of a renowned Muswell Hill bookshop and great supporter of children's literature has died at the age of 87.
Helen Paiba, who opened the Children’s Bookshop in 1974, passed away after a battle with dementia.
Born in London in 1934, Helen spent her early years moving around north-west London with her family, before they were evacuated first to Hove, and then Derbyshire during the second world war.
They eventually moved back to London, where Helen attended The Henrietta Barnett School.
Her devotion to literature for young people was sparked when she was working at Pitman’s publishing house in her 20s.
Her niece, Veronica Kennard, said it was after she became involved in a project called the Initial Teaching Alphabet that Helen’s commitment to children's reading grew.
In 1974, having already moved to Muswell Hill, Helen opened the Children’s Bookshop.
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Becoming known for its vast collection of stories and Helen’s enviable depth of knowledge, Veronica said that, at a time when book reviews could not be read online or bought on Amazon, the shop became a place people visited regularly for direction and advice.
Helen’s clear devotion and simple philosophy regarding young people reading also marked the shop out as special.
“She was very keen that children should read," Veronica said. “She had a real feeling that, as long as people read, she wasn’t trying to be very high class about it. If you wanted to read Enid Blyton, you could read Enid Blyton. As long as you’ve got reading.
“Not everybody thought that she was amazing. She had a very soft side, but she also had a hard side sometimes, and there were some people who she rubbed up the wrong way. But most people just loved the advice she gave and the help she gave.”
After running the place for 20 years, Helen sold the Children’s Bookshop to Lesley and John Agnew in 1994. Their daughter, Kate, who worked in the shop as a child and also ran it for a time, described Helen’s work as “inspirational”.
She said: “I’ve known her since the bookshop opened because my parents used to take me in since I was a small child, so I’d gone in more weeks than not from the age of around five-ish upwards.
“She’d always provided really great recommendations and loved to talk about books, and it was inspirational watching her.”
Upon selling the shop, Helen turned her attention to a range of other literary endeavours. Perhaps most notably, this included a series of collections of children’s stories for Macmillan, sporting titles such as "Animal stories for 7 year olds", continuing her desire to encourage young people to read.
Helen was decorated on numerous occasions for her work, including being awarded an honorary life membership of the Booksellers Association of Great Britain and Ireland in 1995, and the Eleanor Farjeon Award, recognising her service to the world of children’s books, which she won in the same year.
As testament to her enduring legacy, the Children’s Bookshop was recently nominated as a regional finalist in this year’s Independent Bookshop of the Year Award.
The shop’s current owner, Sanchita Basu De Sarkar, who took it over in 2016, said: “We were so sorry to hear of Helen's passing.
“She has left a deep impression on our customers over the years. Not a week goes by without someone asking after her and sharing their memories of how she would help them as a child or young parent. They talk about her deep knowledge, her humour, her forthright manner – the word dragon comes up frequently! – which I think is wonderful for a children's bookshop.
“She created a treasure trove, and we're honoured to continue her legacy as the oldest running children's bookshop in the UK.”
Beyond her work, Veronica said Helen was “a very interested and interesting and active person", and was very involved in her synagogue and current affairs.
“She was a liberal kind of thinker, and she had a very large number of nieces and nephews, and we were all very close with her.
“She was a great person.”
Helen is survived by her husband, Michael, to whom she was married for 66 years, and whom fans of the bookshop may remember as delivering books around the area in his little red van.