Left-wing bookshops and collective joy

To mark Book Week 2020, Red Pepper Co-ordinator Charlotte Austin writes about her experience of working in a left-wing bookshop and why these spaces are too important to lose

November 16, 2020 · 5 min read
Charlotte (centre, top) experiencing some collective joy with the People’s Bookshop at the Durham Miners’ Gala (photo by Matt Smith)

‘Zoom fatigue’ is part of the zeitgeist of 2020. Working, studying and living your social life over video call has been a daily experience for so many of us since March and there are few signs that this will change for at least the foreseeable future. For the left, the switch to everything online has provided some benefits – being able to attend a meeting in your living room is convenient on one level and a huge benefit to people who struggle to access physical organising spaces on top of that.

But physical left-wing organising spaces are crucial to movement-building. The Corbyn campaign created the excitement it did in 2015 and 2016 largely by packing out rallies and public meetings. The World Transformed’s end of conference parties exist because they bring us together as socialists to experience collective joy. And in my experience, the radical bookshop is a cornerstone of the physical organising spaces that the left needs to grow.

I’ve been working at the People’s Bookshop, a radical bookshop up three flights of stairs in a medieval alleyway in Durham, since I was at school. In my first year at the bookshop, Corbyn was the newly-elected Labour leader and the bookshop was humming with newly-radicalised people of all ages and backgrounds. We used the space for phone banking in the 2016 Labour leadership election, used it as a meeting point for rallies; or simply just used it to chat to fellow activists of all experience levels, educating each other over a cup of tea and a Greggs pasty. We have held book talks, film screenings, political theory discussions, allowed local activist groups to meet without worrying about room booking costs. In many ways, radical bookshops provide a space and framework for activists to learn and develop.

After decades of neoliberalism and austerity, these kinds of spaces have been slowly, and deliberately, removed from all aspects of our life. In our last issue, Morag Rose wrote about the policing of public space and Oli Carter-Esdale on the contested political space that is the pub. Public libraries have been devastated by austerity. Radical bookshops are not a substitute for libraries and all of the other public institutions that austerity has eroded. But they can be an example of how leftists can build organisations that serve their communities. Gay’s the Word, the LGBT+ bookshop featured in the film Pride, demonstrates this beautifully.

I spoke to Mandy from the News From Nowhere collective, a bookshop that has served Liverpool’s left-wing communities since 1976. News From Nowhere is run by an all-women collective who refer to themselves as ‘the real Amazons’ – Jeff Bezos be warned. Mandy tells me that keeping online orders running has been difficult in lockdown, as has supporting each other through isolation. Choosing to buy from News From Nowhere (they are still taking orders) instead of Amazon could provide a lifeline to the iconic shop, who are really missing out on both the trade and community of the in-person events they regularly set up stalls at.

Covid-19 is the latest challenge for radical bookshops as they fight to survive in an Amazon-dominated, austerity-ravaged landscape. By exerting what little power we have as consumers and choosing to spend our money in shops like News From Nowhere, we can preserve these vital pieces of left-wing infrastructure.

Through the People’s Bookshop, I have made friends for life. Having a space where we can simply exist – not by virtue of being a consumer – has been immensely valuable for our consciousness-raising as young activists. Mark Fisher’s writings on Acid Communism encouraged us to replicate the counterculture of the 1960’s and 70’s and imagine an alternative to capitalism through collective joy. The collective joy that I have experienced both through the Bookshop and in wider left organising has kept me going through the worst of the last 5 years and keeps me fighting for an alternative to capitalism. That is too valuable to lose.

Charlotte Austin is Red Pepper‘s Co-ordinator and a history student at Durham University. Follow her on Twitter here

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