Other than the London Anarchist Bookfair and a few smaller regional book fairs — Bristol, Manchester, Sheffield for example — there are few places where anarchist books are seen. Few general bookshops are interested in anarchism and there are few radical bookshops.
That has not always been the case. At one time there were 130 radical bookshops in the UK with a public magazine, The Radical Bookseller. Some seemed predestined to fail: Beautiful Stranger in Rochdale and Proletaria in Doncaster, where are you now? Others have lived long and happy lives — News from Nowhere in Liverpool celebrated its 40th birthday a year or two back, while Freedom Bookshop and Housmans in London are even more venerable. All carry anarchist books and, own their own premises. That alone probably enabled them to survive when other radical bookshops were swept away.
There has always been a creative conflict between radical bookshops wanting to promote ideas and discussion and the necessity to pay the overheads and suppliers and, for those who go in that direction, paying the wages.
The anarchist 56a in south London and the Cowley Club in Brighton are run entirely by volunteers and are happy so doing. There are several such shops, which are also social spaces, in membership of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB). On the other hand Housmans and Five Leaves, in Nottingham, are the only two new-book booksellers in the country signed up to the Living Wage Foundation.
In the heyday of the radical trade many, if not most of the bookshops were anarchist-influenced or libertarian/feminist in their structure whilst selling a wide range of books. Operating as co-ops or collectives, they saw themselves as a prefigurative business model for how an alternative economy could work, together with collectively-run print shops, wholefood shops, community magazines and the like. Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham (where I worked from 1979-95) happily sported linked anarchist, feminist and peace signs on the shop van and was run as a collective. When I left, it was turning over £400,000 and paying better wages than commercial bookshops. Its politics at the time were strong, particularly over anti-fascism and opposition to wars, yet it ran commercially with a thriving school and library side to the business. One of the reasons the bookshop operated in this way was so that we were able to employ people with children and we did not expect workers to live in poverty in order to work there. This was also the view of Silver Moon feminist bookshop which operated for some time on Charing Cross Road in London (until rent hikes put them out of business when the government changed the rules to force councils to only charge market rents for premises).
The collective model was surprisingly controversial with, in 1985, Comedia publishing — What a way to run a railroad: an analysis of radical failure arguing, with supporting evidence, that collectively-run businesses were a bad thing. For some years the Federation of Alternative Booksellers refused entry to shops other than collectives, thus excluding Housmans and Freedom as well as shops owned by political groups of the left. This changed after some very fraught debates with the organisation becoming the Federation of Radical Booksellers. The current Alliance of Radical Booksellers has no such concerns.
Whatever the structure, radical bookshops have often come into conflict with the law and the far right. Grassroots in Manchester, Silver Moon and Gays the Word were among many shops which had LGBT stock seized. Mushroom and others had drug-related books taken. Muslim fundamentalists attacked the trade in general over Satanic Verses and in response Bookmarks produced a widely-circulated poster saying Fight Racism, Not Rushdie.
The far right were a constant threat — stickers, letter bombs, threatening phone-calls, physical attacks on staff — these were regular occurrences. These included, for example, firebomb attacks in 1973 and 1977 on two Black bookshops in London, both called Unity Bookshop, and in 1994 an attack by fifty fascists on Mushroom in Nottingham. The more recent attempted arson attack on Freedom Bookshop is likely also to have come from the right. But really, every radical bookshop was a target, Fourth Idea in Bradford, Gays the Word in London… everyone had their story to tell.
But to prove there is nothing new under sun, Christopher Richardson, in his book A City of Light: Socialism, Chartism and Co-operation — Nottingham 1844 describes how in 1826 the local freethought bookshop was besieged by Christians for four weeks before the owner, one Mrs Susannah Wright won the day. During the siege she had to draw a pistol on two of her assailants!
Radical bookshops have a long history, their names often appearing fleetingly in the records. Anarchist bookshops from the past include a succession of shops run by the IWW supporter Charles Lahr and a number of short-lived anarchist bookshops often described as “The Bomb Shop!” Leicester, for a period, had The Black Flag bookshop, Leamington had The Other Branch and the 121 centre on Railton Road in Brixton had a bookshop for about ten years, though the opening hours were admitted to be erratic. Much better known was Rising Free, latterly of Upper Street in Islington.
There is a persistent rumour that they sourced their stock (being polite here) from other bookshops. True or not, they helped me into radical bookselling by supplying books for a college stall on sale or return back in the early 1970s in Aberdeen before Boomtown Books opened. I’ve probably got some remaining stock from the bookstall if you want it…. A longer lasting libertarian outlet was the commercially-owned Compendium in Camden which linked the hippy era of Better Books and Indica (in London), Unicorn (Brighton) and Ultima Thule (Newcastle) with the more political era in the wake of 1968. It closed in 2000, still profitable, when the lure of renting out the premises was too strong for its owners to resist. Compendium was famed — in those pre-internet days — for its American imports, and by publishers for its slowness in paying bills.
Though the London Anarchist Bookfair continues, others such as the annual Socialist Bookfair, the Feminist Book Fortnight the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Book ran out of steam. The radical trade was also a significant part of Booksellers Action for Nuclear Disarmament.
It was always my dream (not that I did much to bring it about) that there would be a closer alliance of radical bookshops, radical people who worked in mainstream bookselling, radical publishers, radical writers and radical librarians.
All the groups mentioned did this for a period, but nothing permanent developed. Not all former staff of radical bookshops stayed on the outside left — Days of Hope in Newcastle (known locally as Haze of Dope) included Mo Mowlam and Alan Milburn who both went on to be Labour cabinet ministers but most bookshop staff are still around and often still have an involvement in the book trade.
In some ways, despite the number of shops being low nowadays, anarchist books are more available than ever, thanks to the internet but also the major operations (by left wing standards) AK Distribution and Active Distribution, both of whom have huge stalls at the Anarchist Bookfair but also at festivals and other suitable events. Both have an extensive mail order operation.
There are also a number of second hand book dealers selling anarchist books. The best of them is probably Northern Herald books, owned by the anarchist Bob Jones. Their stall is always the busiest at the bookfair and you can find them at many conferences of the cooperative and trade union movement. Frustratingly Northern Herald has resisted putting its stock online but they have never failed to have the book I wanted in stock.
The number of bookshops in the Alliance is steadily growing. Some are glorified bookstalls, some are second hand, some are social spaces, some — I am thinking of the socialist People’s Bookshop in Durham — are central to the local labour movement. The London Radical Bookfair, an initiative of the ARB, complements the Anarchist Bookfair (and includes some of the same exhibitors) and has found a supportive venue at Goldsmiths in South London. The LRB will have its fifth year next year.
The Alliance also has set up the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing and the Little Rebels award for children’s books. Having been initially funded by Five Leaves, the current sponsor is the General Federation of Trade Unions. There is more confidence in radical bookselling now than for some time and some effort has been put into creating this skeletal structure for the movement. A lot of that is down to Housmans, which has put itself at the centre of the radical bookselling revival.
Not that it is easy to run a radical bookshop … city centre rents are prohibitive. Five Leaves survives in its city centre spot because we are in an alleyway whose only other tenant is a bookies, but this also means we are unlikely to be swept away by rent hikes. Trade discounts are better than they used to be and publishers large and small are keen to support independent bookshops. Britain’s publishers are very dependent on the one chain, Waterstones. Even though the number of independent bookshops fell below 1,000 for the first time in 2013 our collective contribution to the book trade is more than the sum of its parts and it is in every publisher’s interest that the indie sector survives.
It used to be said that the only way to make a small fortune in bookselling is to start with a large fortune… certainly nobody expects to get rich in this business. Not least because unlike, say, a cafe, bookshops need to carry a lot of stock to be attractive and it probably takes about three years to find your feet economically.
From almost the start Five Leaves has paid the Living Wage (not the government’s renamed pretend minimum wage the “national living wage”). That’s not been easy and we have to be fairly ruthless at business decisions to manage it. Whilst I have nothing against shops being entirely run by volunteers, I felt that I could not expect people to work for the business for less per hour than the cost of a standard paperback novel.
It’s also a good selling point as to why people should shop with us — we pay our staff properly. This has a resonance with many customers but particularly trade unionists. Our own annual mini-festival (Bread and Roses) is trade union sponsored and we regularly work with unions such as Unison, NUT and the former NUM on meetings and projects.
Five Leaves also has a big events programme, weekly events in the shop, political talks, poetry readings, Irish history, transgender, anarchism, Middle East, Corbynism; you name it, we’ve had talks on it. Often these are in conjunction with outside groups.
The talks — not all book-related — being people in and make the bookshop a significant part of the local political and literary scene. These complement our main job, which is, and always will be, offering books for sale as radical bookshops have been doing in Nottingham since 1826!
This article first appeared in the Winter 2016 edition of Freedom anarchist journal
Ross set up Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham in 2013, which grew out of Five Leaves Publications, which has been publishing since 1995.