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22 November 2022

The radical bookshops shaping Britain’s literary culture

Today’s indie bookshops are as influential in stirring up political and cultural life as those of the 1960s.

By Ken Worpole

“Are you here for the filthy books?” Bill Butler would ask when customers entered Brighton’s Unicorn Bookshop in the late 1960s. The exterior was brightly painted with star-studded blue skies, against which unicorns pranced among rainbows. The interior was even more surreal: not just another bookshop but another world. Butler sold anti-war posters, the occult and esoterica, liberation politics, and gay imports from the US (of which he was one). His principal interest was the international Beat movement, selling the books of City Lights, a San Francisco publishing house founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti, with whom he was in contact. The Unicorn Bookshop was patrolled by a large Alsatian dog, cool jazz played, and Butler rhapsodised knowledgeably on whatever customers were interested in buying.

In 1968, a year after the Unicorn opened, the police came knocking and Butler was charged under the 1959 Obscene Publications Act with printing and distributing Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan, a spoof psychological paper on political celebrity written by JG Ballard. Finding him guilty, the chairman of the magistrates, a certain Herbert Ripper, extended his fears that a tide of filth was entering Brighton (hence Butler’s ironic welcome to customers) by criticising the newly established Sussex University, several of whose lecturers had appeared in Butler’s defence: “May I say how appalled my colleagues and I have been at the filth that has been produced at this court, and at the fact that responsible people including members of the university faculty have come here to defend it. It is something which is completely indefensible from our point of view. We hope that these remarks will be conveyed to the university authorities.”

Writers gathered in support, producing an anthology For Bill Butler, edited by Eric Mottram and Larry Wallrich, with contributions from Allen Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, Lee Harwood, Tom Raworth, Tuli Kupferberg and others. A costly but successful appeal broke Butler in more ways than one and he retired to a commune in Wales, dying soon after. Jim Burns, the venerable chronicler of British Beat culture at the small imprint Penniless Press, later wrote: “It has always struck me that people like Bill Butler, who opened bookshops, published books, started little magazines, and organised events, and rarely made money out of these activities, never have had the recognition due to them.” 

Butler’s story belongs to a long history of radical bookselling and publishing: of clashes with laws intent on sending publishers and booksellers to prison, or in defiance of those who wanted to burn dissident bookshops to the ground. In 1984, Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, London, was raided by Customs and Excise, a third of its stock removed, and the owners charged under imports legislation. Eventually a judge threw the case out of court and the books were returned, damaged. Centerprise, the bookshop in Dalston, east London, where I worked between 1973 and 1978, was petrol-bombed twice. Black bookshops were targeted with even greater intensity: both Bogle-L’Ouverture (later the Walter Rodney Bookshop) in Ealing, west London, and New Beacon Books close to Finsbury Park, north London, had their windows repeatedly smashed and graffitied.

The influence of Bogle-L’Ouverture and New Beacon in bringing Caribbean and African writing into the bloodstream of British intellectual life can’t be overstated. Eric and Jessica Huntley at Bogle and John La Rose and Sarah White at New Beacon were in close contact with established and younger writers and artists from the Caribbean through the influential Caribbean Artists Movement – CLR James, Andrew Salkey, Edward Kamau Brathwaite, Walter Rodney, James Berry, Louise Bennett, Samuel Selvon, Althea McNish – helping them gain a footing in the artistic and literary world of the metropole. It was Jessica Huntley and John La Rose who pioneered the first International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books in 1982. This soon became an annual event, attended by thousands of people from all over the world, with satellite festivals held in Manchester, Bradford, Leeds and Glasgow; the organisers took a firm stand in defence of Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses.

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While former Commonwealth writers began to get noticed at this time, the same was not true of black American writers, particularly women. Jane Cholmeley, founder member of Silver Moon women’s bookshop in Charing Cross Road in 1984, recalls the insularity of British publishing at that time, describing how Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, first published in 1969, was not issued in the UK until Virago’s 1984 edition. Likewise, Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye, first published in the US in 1970, had no British edition until 1979. “Things had caught up a bit by the time Morrison’s Beloved was published on both sides of the Atlantic in 1987,” Cholmeley said. “When she came to London in 1988 to promote the book, Morrison was hugely welcomed at Silver Moon for a signing. It seems that Waterstones, Hatchards, and other big book retailers were not much interested, but we were!” 

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Bookselling as a radical enterprise emerged in the late 18th century, promoting the extension of the franchise, trade union membership, co-operation and Chartism. Today’s counterparts mix environmentalist polemics, treatises on sexual politics, black and post-colonial writing, gay and lesbian fiction, anarchist and Marxist theory, veganism and animal rights and self-help manuals. At Housmans in King’s Cross, home of the pacifist magazine Peace News and the early Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, Nik Górecki is bullish about the resurgence of the radical bookshop network. “Black Lives Matter has made a real difference,” he said, and “the interest in the legacy of empire (including the policing of black dissent across the world), has produced dozens of titles in the past couple of years, as have controversies over trans rights”. At Brick Lane Bookshop in east London, Denise Jones says TikTok has generated a new generation of enthusiastic young readers and book-buyers.  

Times have changed for Gay’s The Word too, according to Jim MacSweeney, who started work there in 1989. MacSweeney says that since the 2014 film Pride (which featured the bookshop and told the story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group during the 1984 strike), and as attitudes towards sexuality change, “people make special visits to the bookshop and take photos outside. Teens come in with their parents to buy books, which was unthinkable back in the Nineties.” Campaigning seems to come with the territory, but so do ambitious programmes of author events, book signings and readings.

Some bookshops take things even further. In February Gracie Cooper of Little Toller Books in Beaminster, Dorset, started a scheme to send ten thousand backpacks filled with books, pencil cases, head-torches, writing pads and cards written by school children to Romania for children displaced by the war in Ukraine. The backpacks were filled by 250 volunteers over a single weekend in a disused factory and dispatched in five articulated lorries: £75,000 was raised in the first few weeks and donations eventually came to over £1.5m. Cooper has now received Arts Council funding to continue her work with refugees.  

Not all small, independent bookshop define themselves as radical, though they share much the same DNA. This year’s Independent Bookshop of the Year Award went to The Bookery in Crediton, Devon. The trade journal the Bookseller commented: “Although there are different models here, from long-time family-run shops to a community-run not-for-profit, the common thread is constant innovation and unwavering support for local communities. It may be counterintuitive to say, but we just may be in the golden age of independent bookselling. They have met the challenges; indies are thriving and the number of shops is rising.”

As publishing becomes more corporate, small, independent publishers aided by the independent bookshop sector have become the new talent-spotters, finding and promoting new imprints and new writers, and winning major awards. Attrib. and Other Stories by Eley Williams, from Influx Press, won the prestigious James Tait Black Prize in 2018. Other Influx titles have been listed for the Dylan Thomas Prize, the Edge Hill Prize, the Jhalak Prize and the Gordon Burn Prize. Influx’s founder, Gary Budden, stressed that independent bookshops have been key to its success: “Bookshops like Housmans and Burley Fisher in London, The Book Corner in Halifax, or No Alibis in Belfast, have consistently championed the work of the smaller publishers. They took a chance on us long before the corporate chains took any notice.” 

The big bookselling chains, employing discounting and special offers, remain risk-averse, counting units not titles. Ross Bradshaw at Nottingham’s Five Leaves Bookshop remembers how in 2017 some in the book trade were sceptical of the sales potential of Reni Eddo-Lodge’s provocatively titled Why I Am No Longer Talking to White People About Race. Bradshaw took ten copies and “went on to sell hundreds”. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Eddo-Lodge’s book became the first by a black British author to lead the Nielsen UK Top 50 book sales chart, and was No 1 in a 2018 poll of the “Top Ten Books by Women that Changed the World”. At New Beacon, Michael La Rose said: “The resurgent 2020 Black Lives Movement with the murder of George Floyd translated into a flood of interest in books on the politics and history of Black struggle in Britain along with the literature.”

After reaching a low in 2016 of just over 800 independent bookshops, the sector has rebounded, with nearly 1,100 trading at the end of 2021. Górecki, who is also part of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, is positive about the future, believing that independent bookshops are now as influential in stirring up political and literary life as they were in the Sixties. Gone are the party-affiliated bookshops, stricter on what they didn’t like rather than what they did. Today’s indies can’t afford to be sectarian or act as adjudicators in the culture wars. They are weather stations, trading locally but stocking the shelves from across the world, alert to shifts in contemporary culture – and creating them, too.

Ken Worpole will be speaking at “Quiet Revolutions: A Celebration of Radical Bookshops” at the Barbican Library, London, on Saturday 26 November. 

[See also: Books of the year 2022]

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