Monday, 13 May 2013

London Radical Bookfair interim report

In 1991 I wrote an article for Tribune. concerned that the number of radical bookshops in Britain had fallen to close to a hundred. Innocent that I was, not thinking that the next decade would wipe out most of those shops - the economic and political impact of Thatcherism bringing radical bookselling and publishing to a low ebb.
About three years ago a group of us associated with Housmans Bookshop in London noticed that sales had picked up and that there was a new interest in radical books, particularly those trying to explain the economic crisis. There was a spring in the step of radical publishing not seen for a while, and attendances were picking up at events. Out of those discussions came the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, the first organisation for many years, operating on a light touch basis. We discussed, and set up the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing. We - the Trustees being Nik Gorecki at Housmans and Mandy Vere at News from Nowhere in Liverpool - wanted to encourage radical publishers, to encourage radical writers and to encourage the commercial sector to value radical writing. Following the prize-giving social at the first year, the idea developed that it would be useful to provide a forum for the shortlisted writers to discuss their work in front of an audience... some events... and why not have a small bookfair around that discussion?
By now other publishers were becoming interested, though nothing yet was firm. Various cheap and unsuitable premises were discussed. We were keen not to be in competition with the longstanding  London Anarchist Bookfair held every autumn. The Anarchist Bookfair had weathered the downturn and - more than that - had flourished to become  major event, but we wanted a bookfair that would appeal to a wider audience - socialists, greens, radicals of all sorts - including anarchists. The London Radical Bookfair idea was developing... Suddenly one of the group discussing the project indicated he knew of a Trust that might help, a bigger venue was found, Conway Hall, and the idea took off.
At this stage difficult family commitments got in my way, Andrew Burgin became overwhelmed by the growth of his and his partner Kate Hudson's Left Unity initiative and Nik Gorecki at Housmans found himself with a looming bookfair on his hands. With Zen-like calm, and the support of Michael Gilligan, also from Housmans, stalls were booked and publicity started. Around this time the Bread and Roses Award changed to include the Little Rebels Award, organised by the Letterbox Library. There would now be a bookfair, events and two awards. But would people turn up, with next to no advertising budget, no dedicated staff, half the expected organisers gone AWOL? On Saturday the answer was a resounding YES.
Here's the evidence:

This is only a partial view of the main hall. Elsewhere there were meetings with the Bread and Roses shortlisted writers, the food area and the bar... and the usual milling about and conversations outside the main area.
There were stalls from the London radical bookshops, Housmans, Newham Bookshop, Bookmarks and others; distributors including Turnaround and Active; publishers including Pluto, Merlin, Verso down to smaller outfits like Five Leaves; trendy young things whose books I could not understand and wizened veterans selling heavy duty texts. Fifty stalls in all - including the one below, offering hundred year old copies of Arbeiter Fraynt, the Yiddish anarchist periodical banned by the British Government during WWI.

What was encouraging was the level of interest and the absence of sectarianism. There was a collection at the end with half the proceeds going towards a radical bookfair next year and half to the anarchist Freedom Bookshop, rebuilding after an arson attack. People warmly welcomed the speaker from Freedom at the plenary closing event as much as they did the children's writers from the Little Rebels prize. I was MCing the plenary and got a big ovation for the main organiser Nik Gorecki, who was of course busy on some practical thing elsewhere in the building so never heard it. But he and his colleagues at Housmans deserve all our thanks. Radical bookselling is on the move again. And I'm pleased to say that Housmans itself is doing well.
I'll shortly post a report on the Bread and Roses/Little Rebel award winners, and put down some thoughts on how the radical bookfair might continue. It is many years since the old socialist bookfairs, and the third world and black bookfairs so we have a fairly clean slate. This is exciting.

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