Posted on September 20, 2011

The Shop That No Rioter Wanted To Loot . . . Because It Sells Books

David Cohen, London Evening Standard, September 20, 2011

On the worst night of London rioting almost every shop in Clapham was ransacked–except one. The bookshop.

In one of the most telling images of the summer, looters stole TVs, hair products and iPods, but the Waterstone’s branch was left untouched.

The “joke” the next day was that the rioters do not know how to read. Simon, the manager of camping shop Blacks, watched it all from an upstairs window, hiding in terror as hundreds of looters plundered his shop and the street.

“They smashed our window, ripped the plasma TVs off our walls, took all our jackets and rucksacks. I saw them go into Claire’s Accessories, break into NatWest, liberate our neighbours Toni & Guy of hair products. They carted off iPods from Currys, clothes from Debenhams, mobile phones from Carphone Warehouse. I was horrified.

“But Waterstone’s, directly opposite us was untouched. For the looters it was as if it did not exist.”

When Waterstone’s deputy manager Alicia Baiger arrived next day to a street littered with broken glass and debris, she was amazed to find that her shop–with its £199 Sony eReaders and three-for-two £10 paperbacks–had suffered “not even a scratch”.

What this free-for-all revealed better than any consumer behaviour poll could, is that many young people have no desire for books. Not even when they are apparently free.

Something must be done to address illiteracy in London, and the Evening Standard is trying to play a small part in the solution. In a packed, buzzing conference room in Islington library, our first volunteers are being trained as reading helpers.

From undergraduates to retired bankers, they will shortly be placed in schools to support children who have fallen behind in their reading. They came because they were inspired by the Evening Standard’s Get London Reading campaign which seeks to fund an army of helpers trained by our partner charity, Volunteer Reading Help.

All summer, VRH has been processing applicants. Of the 700 people who applied, 350 have been interviewed, 330 have been dispatched for Criminal Records Bureau approval, and 68 have already been trained and placed in schools.

“The quality of applicants has been extremely high and now it’s all systems go,” said VRH chief executive Sue Porto.

“A further 200 Evening Standard volunteers will be trained this month and next at 20 special sessions across London, from Hackney to Hounslow.

“We expect to have 170 volunteers in schools by the October half-term, which means a critical helping hand for more than 500 children. VRH aims to phase in the rest of the volunteers to help at least another 500 children as the school year unfolds.”

The Standard visited a training sessions to see who responded to our literacy drive, and why. The 18 trainees attending in Islington were a vibrant, confident, multicultural group who will be deployed mainly in schools in deprived parts of east London.

Rosie Agnew, 27, one of two VRH trainers in attendance, is tasked with giving them the skills, strategies and ethos they will need.

“The response to the Standard campaign has been fantastic,” she said. “Twenty per cent of the 700 applicants are men, twice as many as we usually get, and there are more younger applicants too, with one in six under 30 and nearly half under 50.”

Each volunteer must be available for two 90-minute sessions a week during school term for a year, no small commitment. So what motivated them to sign up? Investment banker’s daughter Abigail Golob, 23, who is studying physiotherapy at St George’s Hospital in Tooting, wants to help children who struggle to read like she once did.

“I remember hating the books I was given to read as a child,” she said. “I read very, very slowly and would quickly fall behind. Reading was something I did at school because I had to, but I detested doing it at home.

“I was afraid of big books, so my mother’s resolution was to chop them into manageable chunks, physically ripping them down the spine so I could tackle them in sections. It worked, I persisted, and Harry Potter was the first book I read all the way through.”

Abigail was inspired to sign up after reading the stories of children with no books at home. Despite a privileged upbringing, she said she sees the costs of being unable to read all around her.

“I have a friend who grew up in care and can’t read and my boyfriend is the same. They have the reading age of 10-year-olds. The other day I opened a tin of artichokes and my boyfriend couldn’t read what it said on the tin.

“I see how people regard him as stupid because he is illiterate, and how hard it is for him to get a job. I want to help children avoid that fate and open their eyes to the fun reading can bring.”

For David Morris, 73, a retired businessman, becoming a volunteer is payback time.

“It was only because I got one-on-one help in my last year of high school that I learned to read,” he said. “I grew up in Dagenham, but there was a lot of instability at home and I was moved to five primary schools in four years.

“At high school, I was put in the lowest ability group where people made animal noises and just messed about. Later they wanted to make me a prefect, but I declined because prefects had to read on stage from the Gospels–and I couldn’t read.

“It was only when my father bought a TV that I taught myself to read the Radio Times so I could work out what was on the telly. In my final year of high school, a teacher gave me one-on-one attention and it helped enormously.”

Jaishri Hamilton, 53, who came to London from Tanzania at 18, is a retired investment banker living in Wanstead. “The campaign in the Standard made me think about people who have been less fortunate and I am keen to play my part,” she said.

Irene Chung, 67, a mother of five from Palmers Green, retired as a facilities manager this year. “I was schooled in the Caribbean where books were hard to come by,” she said. “I find it difficult to comprehend that children in London have so much and yet squander their opportunity.”

Penny Cook, 21, an English undergraduate at Greenwich University and the youngest trainee, said: “I am here because my nan was illiterate–and because you can’t do anything in life if you can’t read.”

Over two days, the group is taught how to win the trust of reluctant readers, tips for building pupils’ self-esteem, games to play as ice-breakers, and encouraged to see the world from the point of view of the child. “These trainees are very high quality,” said Ms Agnew.

“They are excited, a bit apprehensive, but absolutely up for it. In a few weeks they will be placed in schools and each will be assigned three children. The vanguard of new Get London Reading volunteers is about to make an impact.”