Monday, 4 October 2010

Can I have a bicycle, please?

Five Leaves is distributed to the book trade by Central Books, in common with hundreds of other independent presses and magazine publishers. I've just been re-reading Central Books: a brief history 1939-1999 by Dave Cope. To most people, book distribution is arcane at best; a technical matter involving boxes, invoices, returns (ah, them), warehousing. Central Books is a bit different as it enable us all to reach bookshops who would not want to cope with small orders and hundreds of invoices; far better to order to one source. But the history of Central is a bit different too as it was set up to distribute publishers associated with the Communist Party. Dave Cope (who now runs a second hand leftie book company called Left on the Shelf) has written a fascinating account of the company. One imagines the CP as being monolithic, ruthless even, but in May 1965 Central agreed to buy a bicycle for a Mrs Clark so she could return to the firm after retiring "to facilitate her journey to and from Crawley station where she (now) lived". Later a long serving staff member was allowed "to avoid the rush hours on public transport" by taking taxis at the company expense. Transport was clearly an issue at Central, with one trade rep (who needed a car) failing his test for the fourth time, with the company then agreeing to "sell the car and purchase another one if and when J. Marks passed his test". Two years later a minute remarked that Central's insurance company refused to give comprehensive cover while J. Marks was driving. Another worker, Dan Huxtep, began to have memory problems (at the age of 80) which were resolved by transferring him to the Periodicals department allowing him to work on until he was 91.
At this point any Five Leaves' writer or bookshop worker reading this will be stroking their chin and wondering... but rest assured, those were the old days. In 1984 Bill Norris joined Central, which had already been developing commercially to compensate for the decline of the Communist Party. In due course Bill became managing director and the Communist Party was wound up in 1991 (I do not believe these facts are related). Central was handed over to the workforce and management and, by dint of of closing their London bookshop (making a killing on selling their lease) and moving distribution to Hackney Wick, became the main port of call for small independent publishers. They became a fully professional distribution service. At a later stage I'll post about modern developments in book distribution but these are beyond the 1999 ending of this charming book. No doubt Central still have copies at £5.99, orderable from bookshops with the reference 0714732907.
What is remarkable in the story is how long people worked at Central, and this continues, with most of my contacts, including Bill, having been around for decades. Perhaps they too will be transferred to the Periodical Department when their memory begins to go.

1 comment:

Mel Danvers said...

I worked at Central Books from 1977 thru 1980, Bill Norris was already there, so he couldn't have joined in 1984. Just saying.