If you live in Liverpool, love books and are radically inclined, you will be familiar with News from Nowhere, the iconic bookshop that has survived recessions, fascist attacks, and the decimation of independent book retailing by online tax-evaders. On Sunday I attended an inspiring event at the Bluecoat to celebrate the astonishing fact that News from Nowhere, 40 years old this May, is now Liverpool’s oldest bookshop. How’s that as one in the eye for multinationals, neo-liberalism and austerity?
WeBe40 radical bookfair and forum was a day of events, including talks and readings by authors and poets, displays of radical books and a small exhibition of photos and memorabilia reflecting the bookshop’s history. I went along to the afternoon session in which Bob Dent, co-founder of News from Nowhere back in 1974 recalled how his dream of opening an alternative bookshop grew from the experience of selling radical newspapers on the streets of Harrogate and running a stall while a student at the LSE. Speaking alongside Bob was Ross Bradshaw who worked worked in radical book-selling for seventeen years before moving into publishing, and who recently bucked the trend by opening Five Leaves, the first independent bookshop in Nottingham since 2000. The session was chaired by Mandy Vere, a member of the women’s cooperative which now runs the store.
Manchester Street, first home of News from Nowhere, in 1964 (photo from Streets of Liverpool)
Both speakers provided humorous and entertaining accounts of their experiences in the radical book trade. Bob took us back to May Day 1974 when News from Nowhere first opened its doors on Manchester Street. After joining the May Day trade union march from Islington down to the Pier Head, Bib arrived at the freshly-stocked one up, one down shop to find that he couldn’t get in. After phoning the joiner who had fitted the door he realised his mistake – he was turning the key to the right, when he should have been turning left.
But the dream of opening a radical bookshop began much earlier, in the unlikely setting of the streets of staid and conservative Harrogate. It was the late sixties and as a teenager Bob was developing a lively interest in dissenting ideas. But where to find the literature to fuel his curiosity? There was certainly no radical bookshop in Harrogate (neither then, nor now). So he began selling radical newspapers on the streets, an experience, said Bob, which taught him the two qualities that are essential if you’re in the radical book trade – patience and hope.
Later, as a student at the LSE, he ran a weekly stall in the Students Union selling Peace News and literature produced by the libertarian socialist group Solidarity that had attracted Bob’s attention with their emphasis on workers’ self-organisation and critique of both Leninism and Trotskyism. It was at the LSE that Bob teamed up with Maggie Wellings, who would play a key role in founding News from Nowhere.
The move to bigger premises: Bob and Mandy outside the second shop on Whitechapel
Maggie shared with Bob the dream of opening an alternative bookshop. While still students at LSE, they began to plan. It was Maggie who came up with name for the shop, taking it from the Utopian socialist novel by William Morris. Bob liked it, too, because of its suggestion of retailing news and ideas from no one particular source. As Ross Bradshaw explained in more detail in his own presentation, many towns had left-wing bookshops in the late sixties, but invariably they would be party bookshops, run by the Communist Party or other left-wing groups. Instead, Maggie and Bob envisaged a shop that sold anything critical or alternative.
Bob Dent (speaking) and Ross Bradshaw at the Bluecoat event
Bob described how he and Maggie boned up on the mechanics of the book trade. Getting the stock was the easy part: left-wing parties would not ask for money in advance, while back then book publishers would let you have books on a sale or return basis once you had overcome the hurdle of selling their first consignment – and paying for it on time. The big problem was the money to get started. In the end, Maggie’s mum (who owned a Chinese restaurant on Bold Street, near where News from Nowhere is now located) lent the pair £1000.
So, with stock acquired, bookshelves knocked up by a local joiner, and cheap premises found on Manchester Street, the story of News from Nowhere began. A poster to advertise the shop’s opening was silkscreened, based on Walter Crane’s 1894 engraving ‘Workers’ May Pole’, its ribbons declaring the ideals of the socialist lifestyle: ‘Eight Hours’, ‘Leisure For All, ‘Adult Suffrage’, ‘No Starving Children’, ‘Work for All’, ‘Neither Riches nor Poverty’, and ‘The Land for the People’.
Walter Crane’s 1894 engraving ‘Workers’ May Pole’
That was where Bob Dent left it in his talk: turning the key to the Manchester Street shop that afternoon, on 1 May 1974. Mandy Vere – who joined the shop in 1976 – has continued the story of News from Nowhere in a chapter written for Utopia, a collection edited by Ross Bradshaw. There, she notes that in the early days about a thousand titles were stocked and takings were around £150 a week, ‘kept in a biscuit tin’. Wages were taken from the tin as necessary. The shop was so small that (and I remember this quite vividly) staff had to squeeze onto a bench in the window to work.
I had forgotten, until a question from the audience jogged my memory, that The Liverpool Free Press, a wonderful local newspaper started by investigative journalists from the Liverpool Echo, Brian Whitaker and Rob Rohrer, had tiny offices upstairs. In 1977, News from Nowhere moved into larger premises around the corner in Whitechapel, allowing the stock to be expanded and better displayed. There were exhibitions (for example, of Don McCullin’s photographs for Jonathan Dimbelby’s book The Palestinians), and even room for coffee-making facilities and a sofa.
Moving day, 1977
This was the time when News from Nowhere was involved in establishing Liberty Hall, an alternative political and social club cum cabaret which met every Sunday evening downstairs in the Everyman Bistro. Two doors down Whitechapel, Colin Wilkinson and his Open Eye team had moved into old pub premises, using the space for photographic exhibitions, video training, and a cafe. In another spin-ff from News from Nowhere, Another View Film Society was established to screen radical political films at Open Eye, often introduced by directors such as Nick Broomfield (who shot his first two documentary films in Liverpool).
Inside the Whitechapel store
News from Nowhere had always operated as a collective, but in 1980 the shop registered as a Workers’ Cooperative, and, after Bob left in the mid-1980s – evolved into a women-only collective, as it is today.
Bob and Mandy outside the Whitechapel shop: Bob with his enter who dares stance!
The Bluecoat had organised a small display of photos and memorabilia from the shop’s archives (the source of most of the images in this post). One item on display was this early product of Bob’s journalistic career – a feature from February 1983 describing the attacks made on the shop premises by right-wing extremists. The 1980s were a time when News from Nowhere – along with other radical bookshops across the country – endured a campaign of violence, arson and intimidation.
Bob Dent’s story in 1983 for the Liverpool Daily Post about the right-wing attacks on News from Nowhere
In her survey of the history of News from Nowhere, Mandy Vere notes that one of the most popular items that the shop sold in the 1980s was the pastiche of the poster for the film Gone with the Wind, in which Ronald Reagan sweeps Margaret Thatcher into his arms beneath a mushroom cloud with the strapline, ‘She promised to follow him to the end of the earth. He promised to organise it.’ I still have the copy I bought there.
Gone with the Wind, both of them
In 1989, weary of the dilapidated, leaky and rat-infested premises on Whitechapel, the collective finally moved into a bright, refurbished shop on Liverpool’s busy, bohemian Bold Street with an even bigger range of books and a dedicated children’s’ area. But ten years later disaster almost struck: the arts organisation that the collective had been sub-letting the shop from had, it transpired, defaulted on the rent. Now the property company wanted them out.
At this same moment, a health food shop down the road was closing down, and the owner of the site, rather than lease the shop, decided to sell the whole building for £75,000. At the time this was an unimaginable sum for an alternative collective to even think about. But, an enormous public response to an appeal – and a mortgage from the Cooperative Bank – meant that the building could be bought. The new shop was opened by Alexei Sayle.
Grand opening of the current premises in 1996
That News from Nowhere should have outlived nine other radical bookshops in Liverpool and survived in a period when more than a hundred similar bookshops have disappeared nationally is remarkable. I can only pay tribute to the vision and dedication of Maggie Wellings, Bob Dent, Mandy Vere and all the other members of the collective who have taken the shop from strength to strength through the decades. It’s a fine achievement and has been an enormous contribution to the political and intellectual culture of Liverpool.
One personal example of how important an independent bookshop could be in those far off days before the internet. Soon after the move into the Whitechapel store, Rita had tried everywhere – unsuccessfully – to obtain the then-definitive collected works of Russian poet Osip Mandelstam, published in America by Ann Arbor. She sought Bob’s help, and – several weeks later – the edition arrived in the shop. I think this is a story, too, about the excitement there was in getting hold of relatively obscure items – an excitement that just can’t be experienced in these times, when one click can get anything you want, instantly (mea culpa!). While Rita was seeking out obscure Russian poets, I wanted a definitive triple LP of Charlie Parker’s Dial recordings that I’d seen in Amsterdam. Geoff Davies at Probe Records, the independent equivalent on Clarence street of News From Nowhere, obtained it for me. It took about six weeks – but the joy of holding in your hands something that you could have found nowhere else in Liverpool was indescribable.
News from Nowhere has survived against the odds in enormously difficult conditions for alternative booksellers and publishers, as Ross Bradshaw outlined in his talk. There are new challenges to face now, not least internet competition and rapacious competition in book publishing that makes it hard to see how independent publishing can survive. But, Ross Bradshaw concluded his presentation on a positive note, quoting these words, written by William Morris in The Dream of John Ball in 1888:
I pondered all these things, and how people fight and lose the battle, and the thing that they fought for comes about in spite of their defeat, and when it comes turns out not to be what they meant, and other men have to fight for what they meant under another name.
Meanwhile, Many Vere ended her account of the shop’s story with these words from Bob Dent back at the beginning:
To help us create that better world which William Morris envisaged in News from Nowhere, we need ideas which counter the prevailing ideologies. Access to alternative, creative, radical ideas which help us challenge the different power structures of society is not a sufficient condition for changing the world, but it is a necessary one.