Sunday, 20 January 2013

On the need for a poetry bookshop

Every Saturday afternoon from the early 1960s onwards, the diminutive, genial [Bernard] Stone would dispense free glasses of wine to a boozy, bohemian crowd. This included not only Horowitz, but also Alan Brownjohn, Christopher Logue, Lawrence Durrell, Alan Sillitoe and Sir John Waller, the last invariably squiring a tough-looking, semi-literate, gay pick-up whom he would introduce as "a wonderful new poet". Another colourful regular at these Saturday afternoon parties was the hellraising, drug-addicted novelist, Alexander Trocchi.
Stone went on to create Cafe Books, which specialised in pamphlets by young poets such as Roger McGough and Brian Patten. The Turret Bookshop also provided the base for both Turret Books and the Steam Press, which was run in partnership with Stone's friend, the cartoonist Ralph Steadman, whose illustrations adorned two of Stone's children's books. Under the Steam Press and Turret Books imprints, a range of publications by the likes of Alan Brownjohn and Ted Hughes were released in limited editions.
Obituary of Bernard Stone in the Guardian
As the 1980s moved into the 1990s, Camden became a magnet for the world's teenagers and Compendium underwent a facelift. Mike [Hart] formalised its literary scene by initiating regular readings in the bookshop, something of an innovation at the time. Visiting Americans, from old beat heroes like Lawrence Ferlinghetti to new literary lions like Walter Mosley, read there; so too did the London writers Iain Sinclair, Martin Millar and Derek Raymond.
Obituary of Mike Hart in the Guardian
And I’d love to see a modern version of the late Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop, a poetry bookshop that ran from the 50s to the 70s in London. But that is a job for someone else. And what a great use of Arts Council funding that would be.
Ross Bradshaw in Staple
After writing the above coda to an article about bookselling in Staple (where, by the way, I under-represented the longevity of Bernard Stone’s Turret Bookshop) several people mentioned the absence of a dedicated poetry bookshop in London.
The Turret will never be built again, the rise of the internet cut away Compendium’s base of imported books but their absence – together with the much missed Poetry Society’s book room – has meant there is no dedicated place selling poetry over the counter in Britain, by which I mean London, the only place a poetry bookshop would be economic.
Not long after these specialist outlets ran out of steam or moved on, the main chain in the UK, Waterstones, took a much harder approach to what they stocked and what they returned. Now, in many major towns and cities, the only poetry books actually on sale are the popular anthologies, books by long dead poets and books by a handful of popular writers. It is near impossible to browse through the next level of poets beyond Cope, Duffy, Heaney… and to find who is on the up, who’s new. All poetry publishers have been affected by this. Of the major bookshops perhaps only Foyles has a good poetry section and one where a book sold to the shop remains sold.
The most significant outlets are Festivals, Ledbury, Stanza, Aldeburgh; the regular rounds of readings; the Poetry Book Society. None of these allow an easy way in to the casual buyer, the person who wants a present, the school librarian that wants to build up a section from books they have touched or seen. There is nowhere for the newly interested to browse, nowhere for the obscure to nestle next to the popular, nowhere that brings the wide range of magazines together (for sale), nowhere to provide the most natural background to launches and readings where one book leads to another, nowhere that displays a range of critical work next to material in translation, next to poetry cards, next to Candlestick’s poetry pamphlets, next to old and important anthologies, next to CDs of poetry being read, next to limited editions while behind the counter there is someone who knows what the customer is talking about. Digital has its limitations (though any poetry bookshop could also sell on line).
I emphasise for sale, as the Poetry Library and the Scottish Poetry Library does this for researchers and browsers, but poetry needs to sell. And by sale I mean over the counter to the passing stranger – not by subscription. The PBS does, but has a naturally limited constituency and the Scottish Poetry Library does, better, but with only a limited range of books.
The Arts Council provides funding for authors, for residencies, for training courses, for Festivals, for publishers, for Inpress to distribute publishers, for the Poetry Library, but not a bookshop…
Why not?


charles said...

Would a dedicated poetry bookshop be economic even in London? There's only one way of finding out. A year or so ago a local vacant premises - split level, and with those big ceiling fans that slowly turn - got me fantasising: shelves of books arranged eccentrically (Bernard Stone-wise), a resident dog, sleeping space for itinerant poets who could stay for a while and muck in, desk space (because this place would publish too, like Harold Monro's original Poetry Bookshop and like City Lights). I haven't the time/energy. But Monro's shop opened in 1913, exactly a hundred years ago: a new place opening this year would be welcome.

David Belbin said...

The UK does in fact have a dedicated poetry book shop, in Hay on Wye. I visited twenty years ago, when it was run by Alan Halsey. The shop is now run by Chris and Melanie Prince, open seven days a week - though they recommend you phone before travelling a long distance. I occasionally buy stuff from them, most recently a rare Barry Cole pamphlet. Full details at Don't think they do readings or raucous bohemian parties though.

Ross Bradshaw said...

Charles - you are just the person to do it! Dave - I had not realised that the Hay place sold new books until Greg Woods told me earlier today. But Hay is not exactly convenient for most folks. Very pleased to know more about it though.