Sunday, 11 May 2014

London Radical Bookfair - past, present and future

A few years ago three grizzled veterans of the radical book trade, Andrew Burgin (ex-Compendium, ex-Canary Press, dealer in second hand radical books), Tony Zurbrugg (Merlin Press, ex-Africa Book Centre, ex-York Community Books) and me (Ross Bradshaw, Five Leaves Publications, ex-Mushroom Bookshop) and the not-yet-but-soon-to-be grizzled Nik Gorecki of Housmans Bookshop started discussing how to stabilise or revive the remnants of the radical book trade. The discussion was inconclusive, but some time afterwards the Housmans Board (which I was then on) decided to set up what became the Alliance of Radical Booksellers. Our discussions were joined by Mandy Vere, who has been involved with News from Nowhere for the best part of forty years and other bookshops responded enthusiastically.
The ARB was formed at a meeting in Liverpool, as a light-touch organisation co-ordinated by Nik, at a day event which included a presentation on the history of radical bookselling. We also launched the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing. By this time there had been a couple of new shops opening and existing shops were reporting increased trade. Five Leaves did not yet have a bookshop but Ross from Five Leaves, Mandy and Nik formed the Trustees of Bread and Roses and the initial three years of the Award were underwritten by this firm.
David Graeber duly won the first Bread and Roses Award, presented at a social in a trade-union owned pub in London with his book on the debt crisis (published by Melville House). By the next year we were thinking of how to move things forward. It seemed obvious that with a captive group of speakers - those on the B & R shortlist - we had the core of a day event rather than simply a reception to hand over the cheque. Maybe we could add a few stalls? Six? Ten?
We'd noticed how the annual poetry book fair was developing and were aware of the longstanding, and very successful, London Anarchist Bookfair. Suddenly we were talking about a modest London Radical Bookfair, a bit like the Anarchist Bookfair but operating on a wider canvas. Andrew Burgin organised a decent room hire rate for Conway Hall and things were getting more serious. The organising group was to be Andrew, Nik and Ross. Andrew quickly found that he had to drop out as his small Left Unity project turned into a national political party of the same name. Ross had to drop out due to family issues, leaving Nik to organise the first London Radical Book Festival almost on his own, during which he realised that he could go into a zen-like trance and NOT panic about all the things that needed done... For a period it was not looking good. We were wondering whether many people would come, and, if they did, would we reach out to a wider radical community than we were used to. We did not want a radical re-enactment society. A last minute push (particularly a mass email from New Internationalist and Occupy London) brought in the people, lots of them. There were fifty stalls. Conway Hall was packed. Every meeting based on the shortlisted Bread and Roses Award was packed.
By now the Bread and Roses Award had produced an offspring, the Little Rebels Prize for the best radical children's book, organised by ARB member Letterbox Library. The winning adult book was Scattered Sand by Hsiao-Hung Pai (Verso), a book on Chinese internal-migrant labour. The first Little Rebel prize went to Sarah Garland for her graphic novel Azzi in Between (Frances Lincoln).
Looking down from the stage it was obvious the Bookfair had attracted a younger crowd, a wide range of radical people. Stalls reported good business. But it was too small. At its peak you could not get down the aisles. It was obvious there was a demand, and it was obvious we would have to move to bigger premises. The only, small, problem was an expected disagreement between some anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party.
Those bigger premises turned out to be Bishopsgate Institute, a radical library and continuing education establishment that faces into the City and backs on to Shoreditch. From our first approach, to Bishopsgate librarian Stefan Dickers, this was obviously the best choice. They had the space, they had their own mailing list and they wanted to bookend the bookfair with some radical talks and courses of their own. Perfect.
Except why stop at simply radical booksellers and publishers? Housmans had a good relationship with the Alternative Press Fair, an annual event run by artists, DIY publishers, zine producers. And there were three floors...
So now we had a big annual bookfair, a bookfair partner, links with the (younger and trendier!) Alternative Press Fair, a successful adult radical publishing prize and a new children's award. No money, no time, no staff... and while my family commitments had ceased I had a new bookshop to run on top of a publishing programme. Andrew Burgin was still off building a party. So that left Nik again,with the support of his colleagues at Housmans. At least it put the oldest radical bookshop in the UK, now well into its buspass years, at the heart of what is starting to be a thriving radical bookshop scene.
There were 130 stalls, attendance was up. Attendance was younger again. As well as the (packed) meetings about the shortlisted B & R books and a children's panel there were other events, including some aimed at the Alternative Press world, and a big event on the history of Black and Asian radical publishing and bookselling in Britain. The only, small, problem was another expected disagreement between some anarchists and the Socialist Workers Party. But that aside, Greens and alternative types happily rubbed shoulders with Marxists, anarchists with their other Trotskyist cousins, socialist historians chatted merrily to socialists who were too young to have any history. And, despite forgetting to bring the pop-up banner announcing our existence, Five Leaves Bookshop had its first London outing. All the shops did very well. I hope the publishers did too.
Bishopsgate people seemed very pleased as we spread over three floors. Nik looked Zen-like...
The winner of the Bread and Roses Award was Joe Glenton with his Soldier Box (Verso - winning for a second year). The award was accepted on his behalf by his organisation, Veterans for Peace, who reminded us that books should lead to action. Nobody would disagree. The Little Rebel prize went to After Tomorrow by Gillian Cross (OUP) which imagined a time when British people would have to seek refugee status, a book for 9-12 year olds.
So here we are. Little money, no staff, no infrastructure and a hit on our hands.
In concluding the bookfair Mandy Vere said that whilst bookselling was in crisis, the radical publishing and bookselling section was thriving and expanding. Indeed.
What next? I hope that we can return to Bishopsgate. I hope that the Alternative Press people liked the tie-up. We will aim to be repeat the whole exercise on the first Saturday after the May bank holiday next year. I hope we can pull in some funding to underwrite the prizes and the event. I hope that Nik has a day off next week and that Housmans will continue to be at the heart of this project. Small points? I'd like to see a take away brochure, like the one at the Anarchist Bookfair, though am aware of the work involved. I'd like to see the Bread and Roses and Little Rebels shortlist promoted more. I'd like to see... oh, all those things that involve more time and more money.
But when the grizzly ones had their initial discussions a few years ago we had little idea what would be the outcome. Steady as she goes.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Yes, absolutely amazing. Thanks to all, especially Nik.
For next year (!) maybe better signposting to the shortlisted titles e.g. A table at entrance with book covers and indications which stalls each is for sale on?
Filming of sessions/award?
And was The Bookseller there?