The Challenges of Radical Reading
A few minutes walk from the busy Kings Cross station in London stands a bookshop which would have more than a few references in any book on post-war British radicalism. Housmans, the oldest surviving radical bookshop in London, was founded by writer and Peace PledgeUnion member Laurence Housman in 1945. He wanted the bookshop to be a place where ideas of peace, human rights and alternative visions of society could flourish after the devastating years of the Second World War. Its current location is on 5 Caledonian Road, where it has stood since the late 1950s, and the venue has provided space to activist groups like the Gay Liberation Front and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. The 1970s saw it damaged by an IRA bomb that detonated in the pillar box outside the building, and four years later by a letter bomb sent by members of the far-right.
Today, Housmans is one of the few remaining radical bookshops in the UK. The cost of runninga bookshop has risen immensely, and even high street giant Waterstones is struggling to stay afloat in a world where supermarkets and Amazon can sell books at a reduced rate, and whereiPhone users can download even the Communist Manifesto for free. (Housmans, incidentally, is part of a campaign to boycott Amazon for the company’s alleged anti-union practices, poor working conditions and underpricing.) Yet shops like Housmans continue to survive, providing the campaigns and movements of today with literature and meeting spaces.
Nik Górecki is the co-manager of Housmans and also the coordinator of the Alliance of RadicalBooksellers. He spoke to me by email about the challenges and opportunities now facing radical bookshops in the UK.
Patrick Ward: Is it difficult being a radical bookshop in the world of Amazon and Waterstones? Independent bookshops are struggling across the country.
Nik Górecki: The national picture for independents is not good, but it’s a complex situation. Certainly in the last decade the number of independents has collapsed (more than 500 closures since 2005). A few years back, Borders shut leaving Waterstones a near monopoly as a chain bookstore, and yet Waterstones still posted losses that year. Rents are likely the biggest hurdle for independents. Many of the shops that have survived have found ways of dodging spiralling rental costs.
That said there are statistics that show people are reading more than ever before, and there is a renewed realisation of the importance and value of indie bookshops. Some indies are seeing bigger footfall and growing sales.
As a radical bookshop the economics are harder still, as we don’t stock any bestsellers, which most shops rely on to make up the bulk of their sales. There are radical books which sell better than others, but on the whole we champion books which lack exposure and should get a much bigger readership than they currently do.
PW: How do you keep going?
NG: Housmans will be celebrating its 70th birthday this year. It has definitely come close to closing a few times in its history, and above all it’s the commitment of generations of staff and supporters which has kept it going. Housmans also has many volunteers who give their time and effort to the shop, without whom the shop would simply not have survived. As a not-for-profit bookshop, and with a clear political mission, we are lucky that we have people who share in our aims.
PW: Does the economic/political situation make people less likely to feel they are able to afford books, or more likely to buy them as they attempt to understand, and potentially resist, the system that has caused them problems?
NG: Obviously the less money people have at the end of the month the less they can spend on nonessential items, and it’s hard to make generalisations about how this affects the population at large. My general impression is that people who are engaging politically are up for reading more widely and deeply than perhaps they might have before. I think there is also more cross-reading from across political traditions than there might have been in the past. Both very good things.
PW: Why are radical bookshops still important?
NG: Anecdotally, many people have begun their political journeys through bookshops such as Housmans. Browsing a bookshop like Housmans brings you into contact with hundreds of years of radical history and thinking, and does so in a way that feels friendly and approachable. High streets are sanitised places, where market logic rules – a radical bookshop disrupts that order and provides a public space where alternative ideas can live and be contacted.
Housmans has a busy events programme, and this is an important part of our activity in giving energy to alternative political visions. To me, Housmans feels less like a shop and more of a hub, a place where people and ideas come together.
PW: Is there a future for radical bookshops?
NG: Of course! More so than ever! All we need is for the property bubble to burst and I’m sure many more radical bookshops will flourish!