Friday, 14 October 2011

Reasons to be cheerful

Just when you think things can't get much worse, they get a bit better. It was a great pleasure to attend (and speak at) the Chapter and Verse book festival seminar on radical bookselling. Some of the old lags were there - Mandy Vere, the matriarch of Liverpool's News from Nowhere; Dave Cope veteran of the old Communist Party shops Progressive Books in Liverpool and Central Books in London, still on the board of the distributor Central Books and owner of Left on the Shelf, an Internet supplier of second hand socialist books. But there were also new arrivals, from the exciting new People's Bookshop in Durham, which mixes second hand and new, from the Book Bloc, whose shop will open in New Cross and some older and younger activists from Bristol Radical History Group who are moving up from bookstalls to open a shop to be called Hydra.

The day consisted of four parts. Firstly, Mandy from News from Nowhere, Sally from the publishing wing of Bookmarks and Alexis from the anarchist distributor AK Press formed a generally upbeat panel discussing the current state of radical bookselling. All said that you have to do everything nowadays, a bit of publishing, bookselling, outside stalls, in store events - working harder and longer hours to reach the market, but the market is there. There was a sense of unity of purpose, of feeling that we are all in this together (who said that?) and a complete absence of sectarian interests.

The second section was by me, on the history of radical bookselling, concentrating on the days when there were 130 radical bookshops and 450 radical publishers, focusing on the pivotal year of 1984, the year of the miners' great strike and great defeat. I thoroughly enjoyed the research, trawling through old files and back issues of the Radical Bookseller. For years, Dave Cope, something of an expert on the earlier years of the Communist Party orientated shops, and I have planned a book on radical bookselling. The idea lives meantime on his website,, as an incomplete listing of every radical bookshop we have been able to find, together with a bibliography covering mentions of radical bookshops. Any help in adding to this will be welcome.

The third section was the national launch of the Bread and Roses prize, initiated by Five Leaves in conjunction with the Alliance of Radical Booksellers. There will be more on the prize and launch shortly, meantime check out

The final session was a closed session for members of ARB to meet, though also attended by me and a representative of Zed Books. There are now twenty member groups, with Housmans in London administering the project. The general view was that the group will largely operate by networking, providing assistance to publishers keen to reach out to radical booksellers and to tour their authors, but to avoid making controversial public statements. An example of this is over Amazon where some members actively campaign against Amazon while others take advantage of it. Again, the main feature was a keenness to discuss issues but to operate by consensus.

One interesting feature was the presence of second hand dealers, never a feature of the old days. As one pointed out, "An old book is a new book to someone who has not read it before". Indeed, People's Bookshop, the first radical bookshop in Durham since the days of Alleycat, has found that they are selling a lot of backlist material (Paul Foot's Red Shelley was exampled) to people who had simply not had access to this kind of material before.

Everyone was aware of the sector's tiny size and fragility, but felt more positive about radical bookselling than for some time. Would that I was young again!

The ARB's provisional is at . Meantime, let's leave the last word to one Councillor Jeremy Richardson (Conservative) who remarked in the Sheffield Star in 1986 in the following terms about the Sheffield Radical Bookfair "I put in an appearance at the Radical Book Fair at the Town Hall. Anarchists, feminists and every conceivable variety of ragbag lefty was present peddling their wares. For my part I saw no ordinary Sheffielders, just a bunch of grim-faced souls trying to look interested in some rather dull books. Is this really the right use for the Town Hall on a Saturday?" To which we grim-faced souls (illustrated above, for clarity) can only answer, yes.

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