A new left-wing bookshop opened its doors to the public at the weekend. PETER FROST says this is good news for the East Midlands
In a world where book sales are becoming dominated by mail order giant, tax-avoiding and anti-union Amazon it is a delight to hear of a new radical bookshop.
Right in the middle of Nottingham you will find a tiny alley called Long Row and here the Five Leaves Bookshop has just opened its doors.
The man behind this reversal of the trend of independent bookshops closing all over Britain is Ross Bradshaw.
Bradshaw runs Five Leaves, a small publisher which lists among its writers Alan Sillitoe, Michael Rosen, the Morning Star’s Andy Croft and Chris Searle. It is also publisher of my own forthcoming book on Marilyn Monroe’s left-wing politics.
Ross is no stranger to the world of radical bookshops over the years. He has fond memories of Nottingham’s Mushroom Books, having worked there from 1978 to 1995.
Bradshaw is also a historian of the radical and left-wing bookshop movement.
When I spoke to him he recalled that the first left-wing bookshops in Britain were started by the Communist Party, with its Modern Books, People’s Bookshops, Thames Bookshops and others.
These shops spread way beyond the party’s traditional industrial heartlands to market towns such as King’s Lynn and Gloucester.
Sales figures were spectacular. For example in 1946 the party’s Key Books in Birmingham distributed over two million pamphlets and periodicals.
One woman stands out in radical bookshop history – Eva Collet Reckitt, founder of the Collets bookshops and active communist for half a century.
Eva was heiress to the Reckitt’s Blue Company. She used her large inheritance to open both left-wing bookshops and folk and jazz record shops in the Charing Cross Road area of London.
Another long-lived radical London bookshop is Housmans in Kings Cross. It opened in 1945 with roots in the radical pacifist end of the peace movement.
In the 1960s and ’70s bookshops were changing. Communist shops were in decline and being replaced by a new generation of radical booksellers with a wider range of content.
These new politics were avant-garde, libertarian, utopian and even hippy. The life of some of the shops, like Beautiful Stranger in Rochdale, was brief. However one, News from Nowhere in Liverpool, will be celebrating its 40th anniversary as a bookshop next year.
Many of these new shops were run collectively, influenced by feminism and black liberation and by personal growth movements.
Radical bookshops have always attracted attacks from those who felt threatened by the ideas they put forward. There were raids from the police over political or gay books. Shops were firebombed or staff members were attacked.
Some things have come full circle. Today’s new bookshop in Nottingham is part of a very long tradition in the city. In 1826 Susannah Wright opened her Freethought bookshop here.
She had to fight for its survival against a daily picket, during which the shop was broken open and attempts were made to drag out poor Ms Wright.
Brave Susannah saw off the local Committee for the Suppression of Vice. Her shop became so successful that eventually she had to move to larger premises.
At the new bookshop’s opening on Friday Ross Bradshaw told us: “This new bookshop will specialise in history, politics and landscape, fiction and poetry, lesbian and gay books and international writing, with an emphasis on independent publishers.
“Nottinghamshire has a flourishing literature scene, with more professional writers than ever and a very active book events programme.
“The bookshop will provide another focus and we will work with local and national writers to build the shop’s own programme.
“Initial events will include a memorial evening for the Nobel Literature Prize winner Seamus Heaney and a speaker from the peace movement in Israel.”
This is good news for Morning Star readers in the East Midlands.
You can browse all the best in left-wing and radical literature at Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham NG1 2DH
This article first appeared in the Morning Star, November 2013