Time to read and reflect

A Bulgarian bookshop in Walthamstow has become a popular community hub

Once Upon a Time Book Cafe

Elina and Melina run the Once Upon a Time Book Cafe in the St James area of Walthamstow

The transformation of a worn and empty shop into a literary hub was not immediate. It took two women four months working at what they do best; making creative change.

After walking in one day I discovered this book café hides one of Walthamstow’s secrets – here lives the largest Bulgarian community in London. Together like inter-leafed pages sat the coffee drinkers, the mothers and toddlers, the quiet laptop tappers, friends meeting for a chat, the browsers and buyers who find to hand the literature of home.

“It’s a risk and a bother/in this world that’s still male,” John Balaban translates Blaga Dimitrova’s poem A Woman Alone on the Road; written when she was 70 while becoming
the country’s first vice president in the post-communist era.

How did the book café come about? I asked the co-founder, Elina: “It was my inspiration
on a mountain top.” That would explain the deep blue covering the walls. While working together, Melina and Elina talked about what they were reading, their love of literature and problem of finding Bulgarian books.

Open the Rorschach of a divided Europe; this mountainous region following the Danube down to the Black Sea lies hidden behind the marbles of adjacent Greece. But those ancients made Thrace a region of wild mystery. Where mystics abound, can the poets be far behind? And don’t we all love a good story?

The Once Upon a Time Book Café in Station Road, Walthamstow

The Once Upon a Time Book Café in Station Road, Walthamstow

Every beginning opens the dark; so they named their book café on the corner of St James Street ‘Once Upon a Time’. The imagination is the place to bind conversations within and among communities around a good read and a good cuppa. In good weather, this extends outside into the garden they are developing at the back.

“Their roots remain buried/deep in the earth/and their shadows in our dreams.” Again Dimitrova, the conclusion of The Shadows of the Trees, translated by L Popva-Wightman.

In the year since opening, Once Upon A Time has hosted 23 readings, authors’ presentations, and poetry events. One highlight was an around the world night, a dozen poems were performed in the original language, and then in English translation; linking Scotland, Germany, Spain, Portugal, France, Brazil, Nepal, China and England, through Bulgaria. The other words of verse knitted the other worlds of Walthamstow. If Once Upon a Time has a mission, that evening was its statement.

There is a children’s room at the back. Tuesday mornings they hold baby art classes, host birthday parties and magic shows. A good selection of children’s books is part of the over 1,600 they have in stock. Perhaps these children here now will not have the experience Elina
had working in a hotel during the day, studying English at night; finding friendship with other immigrants was not enough, and integration was difficult. Finally a crisis overwhelmed her; she quit her job, describing herself as “a ghost”.

Reading was her consolation, but in a city of bookshops, hers was a face of hunger pressed against their outside glass. No such ceiling covers a mountain. One rare bright London morning, she woke with that rarest of gifts, a transforming idea. It took a year to locate, lease, then lift the latch on a dream.

One Saturday I raised my coffee to my lips, and my eyes to the back of the shop, where a child sat absorbed in its book. Melina and Elina were busy at the till. The child sat, becoming the future.

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