“A huge comrade called Boris...”
Radical bookselling has a long history. In Nottingham there was a freethought bookshop in 1826. It had to fight for its survival against a daily picket, during which the shop was broken open and attempts were made to drag out the proprietor, Mrs Susannah Wright. So successful was the shop, in seeing off the local Committee for the Suppression of Vice, that the rather brave Mrs Wright was able to move to larger premises.
The early days of radical booksellers did not have it easy but although there were physical bookshops, such as The Advanced Bookstore in Liverpool which, in 1906, advertised “socialistic, labour, trade union and freethought” books, most sales were hand to hand. Robert Tressell's The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists describes the Clarion socialists coming to Mugsborough (Hastings) by cycle and by van “and selling penny pamphlets, of which they managed to dispose of about three dozen” having initially been run out of town. Fortunately other places were more receptive and socialist paperbacks (in circulation long before Allen Lane invented Penguin in 1935) sold by the tens of thousands.
The first bookshop chains in the UK were started by the Communist Party, with their Modern Books, People's Bookshops, Thames Bookshops and others. These shops spread way beyond the CP's industrial heartlands to market towns such as King's Lynn and Gloucester. The CP did know how to sell - in 1946 Key Books in Birmingham wrote that in the previous five years they had distributed over two million pamphlets and periodicals, with a sale of £50,000, then a huge sum of money. Looking back, it is easy to mock the books that CP shops actually sold, as Nancy Mitford did in The Pursuit of Love, where “...Linda worked in a Red bookshop... run by a huge, perfectly silent comrade called Boris” as she gradually changed the stock, replacing Whither British Airways with Round the World in 40 Days.
Come the 1960s and 70s the Communist Party shops were in decline, replaced by a new generation of radical outfits. The politics were avant garde, libertarian, utopian and while the life of some, like Beautiful Stranger in Rochdale, was short, News from Nowhere in Liverpool will be celebrating its 39th birthday on May 1st.
Many of these shops were run collectively, influenced by feminism and black liberation, and by personal growth movements. Notice boards – find one of them in Waterstones! - were as likely to advertise a circle dance group as a demonstration against the National Front. Some shops saw Henry Miller as radical, drawing inspiration from the City Lights bookstore in San Francisco but by and large feminism kept the boys in check.
In 1982, The Other Branch in Leamington brought out a pamphlet describing its first ten years during which the shop moved from being a hippie haunt, complete with the late 60s paraphernalia of king-size Rizla papers, to being a serious bookshop. The best sellers during those years were The Herb Book; The Golden Notebook (fiction by Doris Lessing); The Bean Book (vegetarian cooking); The Massage Book; Protest and Survive (anti-nuclear); The Very Hungry Caterpillar (children's book); Woman on the Edge of Time (feminist fiction by Marge Piercy); The Prophet by Kahil Gibran); Guide to Growing Marijuana; and Guide to British Psylocybin Mushrooms. It is easy to mock these idealist days too but this – fairly representative – example of one bookshop's sales prefigured the interest in healthy living and green concerns. These shops were influential within the biggest protest movement since the 1930s, the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, and survived under constant pressure from the far right and occasional raids from the police over political or gay books. Some shops were firebombed, staff members were attacked and, just as Mrs Wright found in 1826, lots of people did not like radical bookshops but many people did.
In 1991 I wrote an article for Tribune expressing concern that the number of radical bookshops had fallen to 114, never thinking that the number would shrink drastically. There were often obvious reasons for closures – SisterWrite and Silver Moon did not survive the waning of the feminist movement; in Norwich Freewheel was left isolated by traffic changes; in Manchester Grassroots developed a reputation of being “holier than thou”. High rents saw off others. But what changed was that there were few openings, fewer people prepared to work long hours for fairly low pay. The wheel is now turning. There are a few new shops, the London anarchist bookfair is attracting record numbers and on May 11th there will be a radical bookfair in London, associated with the new Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing.