Now almost thirty years old, the London Anarchist Bookfair is a big deal, attracting thousands of the curious and committed. Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves – a radical bookseller turned radical publisher – has seen it develop.
In 1984 the Federation of Radical Booksellers published a book called Starting a Bookshop: a handbook on radical and community bookselling. The cover design was based on the logos of shops which are now just a memory… Single Step (Lancaster), Sister Write (London), York Community Bookshop, Grass Roots Books (Manchester), Lavender Menace (Edinburgh), Freewheel (Norwich)…. Towards the end of that decade I wrote an article for Tribune lamenting the decline of radical bookshops, numbers were falling to nearly a hundred.
Nowadays the number of such shops is less than ten, though three of the shops featured on the cover of Starting a Bookshop remain, News from Nowhere (Liverpool), Bookmarks and Housmans (both London). Most of the shops would have defined themselves as libertarian and feminist. With the exception of Bookmarks, shops run by political parties also disappeared, as of course did those remaining shops from the once large Communist Party series of shops.
As well as the shops themselves, many publishers disappeared or declined, and the once major socialist bookfair vanished as did the third world and international bookfair. At first sight the reasons for this steep decline are easy to guess – the decline of the left, the rise of city centre rents, the rise of business rates, the victories of Margaret Thatcher, the abolition of the net book agreement. I think the situation was more complicated than that, with each closure having its own backstory. There had always been closures but fewer new people have been prepared to take on the hard work and financial risk of radical bookselling.
But there were, to use a phrase of the anarchist writer Colin Ward, anarchist seeds beneath the snow. In 1983 the first Anarchist Bookfair took place. I doubt anyone at the time imagined it would outlive most of the brick and mortar political shops and, a generation later, be attracting three or four thousand people to browse round the hundred of so stalls and to attend the fifty meetings on the day, the films, the arts programme or the spaces for younger and older children.
In the mid-80s quite a few libertarians turned their backs on the anarchist movement feeling it was a fairly negative place to be unless you were a supporter of Class War or travelled around with a dog on a string. Many of us joined the Labour Party to better resist Thatcherism (or so we thought). Meanwhile the anarchist book fair grew and grew, moving to ever larger premises. Attending the fair over the last few years has been a revelation. I haven’t seen a single can of Special Brew and this year saw only two of the ‘ last of the Mohican’ haircuts.
The people attending looked, well, looked like most readers of History Workshop, but younger. And they know their literature. I sit for a while each year with Bob Jones of Northern Herald Books, the main second hand book dealer, and watch people buying Paulo Freire, EP Thompson, Gustav Landauer… people who know their way round the literature, and history in particular. His buyers are from all ages, but there is a tremendous thirst for information and literature from younger people, something not seen at other book fairs. Pamphlet culture is also alive and well, particularly reprints from radical history.
This year the book fair speakers included John Pilger and Newsnight’s Paul Mason. Neither of them are anarchists, as far as I know, and it feels to me like the anarchist movement is being taken seriously again. As a formal movement (as opposed to the influence of individual anarchists and libertarian thinking) I’ve always felt that anarchism punches below its weight. There are signs this is changing, with strong local groups in unlikely places such as Hereford and Norwich as well as bigger cities.
The fair is also international, this year featuring stalls from Croatia, Ireland, Israel and Poland. And it is spreading, with localised anarchist book fairs in Manchester, Sheffield and even Kendal. I also met, this year more than others, friends from other political traditions checking out the stalls and meetings. It feels like the anarchist book fair is becoming an essential part of the radical calendar.
Ross Bradshaw runs Five Leaves Publications (www.fiveleaves.co.uk)
A short history of the anarchist book fair appears in ‘Freedom’ (25 September, 2010)