Interview with the driving force behind the Alliance of Radical Booksellers
Nik Górecki, bookseller at Housmans Bookshop.
What kind of books do you sell?
Housmans was set up to promote and provide literature for the post WW2 peace movement, but the shop has grown over the years to take in a broad spectrum of leftist writing. I think we’re unique in the range of stock that we have.
Where did you get the idea of the Alliance of Radical Booksellers (ARB)?
In the ‘70s and ‘80s you could find a radical bookshop in any major town in the UK, and these like-minded booksellers formed the Federation of Radical Booksellers (FRB). With over 100 members they did a lot of good work to support and promote radical bookselling. When I heard about the FRB it struck me that a similar organisation was needed now more than ever. So the idea isn’t new: the ARB is for all intents and purposes a resurrection of the FRB.
What are the main objectives for the ARB and is there a specific criteria for being included as a member?
To provide a mutual support network for member booksellers, and to raise awareness of the valuable work radical booksellers do. There is an official criteria (posted on the website). It is interesting to compare it to the criteria for the old FRB, which was much stricter about who could and couldn’t join – a reflection of the more hard-line politics of the period. For example, Housmans wasn’t allowed to join the FRB as it wasn’t a workers’ co-op. The spirit of the ARB is to be as inclusive as possible, so long as the bookseller is working towards ‘progressive’ ends.
In the seventies radical bookshops thrived, yet now there’s maybe a handful left in the UK, what do you think caused the decline and why is there such a deficit of radical bookshops today?
A proper analysis of what caused the decline needs more space than there is here. Key factors are the tearing up of the net book agreement, increased competition from chain bookstores and internet retailers. I think the general decline of all small businesses points to a shift in the overall economy to one increasingly dominated by concentrated capital. On a more positive note, I agree with those that make the case for the Left having winning many of the cultural battles of recent times; there are many books which only radical bookshops would’ve stocked in the 70s which are now readily available in chain stores. Access to the internet further breaks down the barriers of accessibility.
The prospect of opening a new radical bookshop today must be daunting, but two opened in the last year (Hydra in Bristol, People’s Bookshop in Durham), and there are two more planned this year. It can be done, and it can be made to work. One of the roles of the ARB is to help give support to anyone considering doing so.
What are your thoughts on the monopoly of online bookselling, especially Amazon?
Amazon are bad news for a whole host of reasons (check out http://www.housmans.com/boycottamazon.php ), but perhaps the most worrying aspect is their drive to monopolisation not just of bookselling, but of all online purchasing. Amazon is working to be the one-stop site for everything, from food shopping to gardening equipment. To achieve this they are following the Walmart model of loss-leading undercutting to kill off all competition. As of today there is only really one book chain-store left in the UK, Waterstones, and that is far from secure. If all chains go it may have a devastating effect on the whole supply chain, meaning that even independent bookshops won’t be able to get stock.
Is new technology going to eventually kill the printed book form?
I think there’s room for both print and digital, but then again I still buy music on vinyl! Books offer an experience that lots of readers still value. I spend far too much time looking at screens so I’m relieved to not being doing so when I read.
I would expect most anarchists would be positive of the digital revolution taking place, and the many opportunities for autonomous publishing it allows for. It is hard to say if this has yet created a real shift in the power balance over cultural dissemination. Leftist publishers are only now slowly starting to make their books available for e-readers, so we’ll see how that plays out. It’s not good news for radical booksellers, but we’re not here to sell books but to spread ideas, so if e-books take over, as long as this can be done more effectively then so be it. Personally, I’ll be holding on to the end.
What are Housmans current best sellers?
The bestseller at the moment is Paul Mason’s ‘Why Its Kicking off Everywhere’, which Housmans is selling on a special offer when bundled with the movement’s response to Paul’s book ‘Occupy Everything!’ edited by Alessio Lunghi and Seth Wheeler. Both well worth reading.
Where did the idea of Bread and Roses prize come from?
As part of the forming of the ARB, we thought it would be a good activity for us to collectively organise a book prize, born from the grassroots of the bookshops. To my knowledge this is the only book prize in the UK with what could be described as an explicitly left-wing entry criteria. It is only in its first year, but I think it could grow into something of real significance. For information on the shortlist and so on, please visit: www.bread-and-roses.co.uk/
Anything else we should know?
Please support your radical bookshops! Most radical bookshops are no different to campaign groups, and deserve your backing in much the same way. Please visit www.radicalbooksellers.co.uk to see who is out there, and do get in touch if you’d like to find out how you can help us to grow.
The Bread and Roses Award is an independent annual award for the best radical book published each year. The winners will be announced on Mayday. Check the shortlist: http://breadandrosesprize.wordpress.com/