As a fitting testament to the part it played in the cultural and political history of modern Britain, the UK’s first black bookshop will be celebrating its 50th birthday at the British Library this weekend.
Founded by the Trinidad-born poet and essayist John La Rose as part of his “dream to change the world”, New Beacon Books started out in the 1960s to create its own distinctive approach to the business of selling books, one in which grassroots campaign work and cultural advancement played a central role.
With roots in the anti-colonial movement, it helped power the civil rights struggle in Britain thanks to its pioneering publishing arm and historic initiatives like the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM).
Those associated with it include the literary, artistic and political figures who have helped to shape multi-cultural Britain, among them the academic Gus John and performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson, who will both feature in Saturday’s event.
But amid the celebrations will be the jarring announcement that the bookshop, itself one of a diminishing band, is to close in January. In anticipation of the collective sigh that will erupt from the audience, New Beacon’s co-founder Sarah White is keen to describe it as more of a new beginning than an end.
“Although we won’t be open six days a week we will still be publishing and selling books but doing so in a different way,” she says.
The harsh realities of running an independent bookstore amid an economic slump and cut-throat competition from online sellers have begun to bite, making New Beacon financially difficult to maintain, she explains
“The time when we really made money was in the ’80s and ’90s, a golden period when we regularly received bulk orders from libraries and educational institutions. This provided a financial base for carrying such a huge amount of stock, not only for us but for several other black bookshops around at the time. That has all gone and so have the bookshops. But things change and you just have to adapt and move on.”
Her unsentimental view has echoes in the late La Rose’s often spoken belief that organisations belong to a certain time, flower then fade away.
It represents the long view of political change that for La Rose began in 1940s Trinidad as the push for Caribbean independence was gathering pace, inspiring a new generation of intellectuals and activists whose radical ideas came with them to Britain, where they encountered a different manifestation of empire.
La Rose, an emerging poet and activist for the Oil Field Workers trade union in Trinidad, arrived in London in 1961 looking to set up a publishing house that would challenge the domination of mainstream publishers on Caribbean literature and establish an independent aesthetic. The idea solidified around CAM, which La Rose co-founded as a forum for debate that would go on to set the main artistic trends. In 1966, he and his partner, Sarah, set up New Beacon Books.
Its first publication, a volume of La Rose’s poetry, was funded by pay-out money he received after suffering an accident while working as a brickie at a building site in central London. Over the years many more books were to follow including its first big seller, Bernard Coard’s 1971 polemic How the West Indian Child is made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System.
In the early days, books were stacked in the front room of the couple’ home in Finsbury Park, north London, for distribution to events and meetings, with Sarah often doing the deliveries on her Honda 50 scooter.
In 1973 the bookshop proper opened in nearby Stroud Green Rd, becoming a treasure trove of progressive literature and thought. It was also a community hub, reflecting the various social justice campaigns that dominated the era, many of them headed up by La Rose, who died 10 years ago.
Between 1982 and 1995, New Beacon’s spirit of autonomy entered the wider stage via the annual International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books. Held at venues like the Camden Centre and Islington Town Hall, they gathered literary luminaries from around the world, including Wole Soyinka and Ngugi wa Thiongo.
“We were never just a bookshop and our primary aim was not to run a large-scale commercial operation – for that you have to be very concentrated,” says Sarah. “We saw ourselves as providing information for people, about their history and culture, as well as being a base for other activities.”
Its ownership of the building, a four-storey Victorian house that is also home to sister organisation the George Padmore Institute, an archive centre and meeting place, has helped it to navigate the choppy financial waters, until now.
But Sarah looks back at the last 50 years with great pride. “I have always felt how lucky I was to have been part of this movement and activist tradition,” she says. “We did something very worthwhile in an atmosphere of strength and comradeship.”
As for the future she is optimistic: “Next year will be a period of reorganisation, examining how we might move forward and at the same time maintain the vision and principles of New Beacon in a more sustainable way. It will be an exciting period of transition.”
Anniversary events take place at the British Library, Euston Rd, London NW1, on December 3: Changing Britannia, a talk by Prof Gus John about the legacy of New Beacon Books, 4.30-6pm; and A Meeting of Continents, a night of poetry hosted by Linton Kwesi Johnson, 7pm-9.30pm. Booking essential
This article first appeared in the Camden New Journal on December 1 2016