We’re a socialist and trade union bookshop. The world is throwing up so many different challenges, so many questions – issues around Brexit, or the election of Donald Trump, the global attack on abortion rights or the housing crisis. People everywhere are under stress and looking for answers, but where can they go? To be able to come to a bookshop that’s staffed by people who are themselves asking the same questions, but who are also optimistic about the possibility for change, is hugely important.
We’ve been going for around 40 years, and in our present location in central London for 15 years. We’re just round the corner from the TUC (Trade Union Congress) which is great for us as we work very closely with the trade union movement. We provide bookstalls at most of the trade union conferences and go out to events like the Tolpuddle Martyrs Festival in Dorset organised by the South West TUC.
In the 1970s the bookshop was closely associated with the International Socialists, but over the years we’ve expanded to become a much more general bookshop of the left. We stock books from a range of different left organisations, such as the Communist Party and the SWP (Socialist Workers’ Party), plus politically-oriented books from left-leaning and radical publishers, the biggest of which are Verso, Pluto and Zed and Haymarket in the US.
Our customers tend to be activists of all descriptions. What unites them is that they’re all involved in some way in campaigning or politics. Some are young and newly politicised – the Corbyn effect has been quite strong –but we also see older people who are coming back to politics after a period of being disillusioned. The effects of austerity mean that people have less money, so we try to stock books that are realistically priced. Some books are just too expensive – for example the Thomas Piketty book, Capital, that was a best seller last year was nearly £30. We stock a copy of The Communist Manifesto for £1.
The general focus of the shop is politics, economics, labour history, trade unionism, black and women’s struggles, but we have a big range of books in our second hand section. We draw the line at anything from the far right or that’s overtly racist or sexist.One area where that comes through most strongly is in our kids’ books, where we are proud that we won the Let Toys Be Toys Toymark award two years running for ensuring our kids books allow children to choose freely what kinds of stories and activity books interest them. Some of the children’s books we stock are overtly political, others less so. Our best-selling book is called Click, Clack, Moo: Cows That Type, which is about the cows going out on strike to get a heater in the barn. It’s a fantastic book – there’s even an audio version with the story ready by Rick Mayall. Children’s authors Michael Rosen and Alan Gibbons are also both quite well known for their political views, but we’ll stock any kids’ books that challenge stereotypes and buck trends. We’re a million miles away from shops that have books in blue for boys, which tell them to be superheroes and astronauts, and pink for girls, which are all about princesses.
Our perennial best-sellers include A People’s History of the World by Chris Harman, and Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists. We stock a very cheap and accessible version of that – it’s £1.99 with an introduction from Tony Benn – and it’s lovely to be able to take it out to conferences, where people are perhaps attending for the first time, and introduce them to an important classic. Striking A Light, about the history of the East London matchwomens’ strike, by Louise Raw is also popular – she’s uncovered some interesting parts of the story that have been hidden up until now. This year we’ve also sold a lot of copies of Blacklisted: The Secret War Between Big Business and Union and Paul Mason’s book Postcapitalism has been a big seller. Melissa Benn and Janet Down’s The Truth About Our Schools has been very popular at teaching conferences – it exposes a lot of the myths about education that teachers are expected to swallow. Detroit 67: The Year that Changed Soul, by Stuart Cosgrove, has just recently published in paperback, and looks at the explosive social situation in Detroit in the 60s – police violence, urban riots, war in Vietnam – interspersed with the history of Motown. It’s eerily similar to what is happening today.
One of the special things about Bookmarks is that we’re always on the move. Although we have a physical bookshop in Bloomsbury, and have some fantastic author events here in the shop, we spend a lot of time going out to events and meeting people involved in campaigning. We don’t just sit here waiting for customers. As well as the 10 or 12 union conferences, and the major events like the Marxism Festival and Tolpuddle Festival, we go out to smaller local events around London. Tonight, for example, I am going to a Campaign Against Climate Change meeting with a book called Fossil Capital: The Rise of Steam-Power and the Roots of Global Warming by Andreas Malm.
July is our Christmas. Due to the large events we cover then it’s our busiest time. We close the shop and move everything down the road to the Marxism Festival for a week. We pack the books into a couple of hundred boxes, then buy about 50 per cent additional stock, and then we set up in two massive rooms. A few days later we bring it all back again, before two of us take another 60 boxes and set up in a marquee in a field in Tolpuddle!
Bookmarks is a publisher as well as a bookseller, although we only publish a few books each year. This year we’ve brought out 1917: Russia’s Red Year, a graphic novel to celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution. We’re also bringing out a book on Rock against Racism, which publishes in early December. The Rebels Guide series is the most popular series of books that we do – we currently have Rebel’s Guides to Trotsky, Eleanor Marx, Gramsci, Marx, Connolly, Lenin and Malcolm X with others in the pipeline. They’re only £3 to £4 each and great introductions to political people and ideas. We’re finding increasingly that people that are going back to these figures and the basic ideas in marxist economics to try to grapple with the problems we’re facing.
We have an amazing shop in Bloomsbury, but the next couple of years are going to involve a lot of decisions for us. We need to work out the impact of the changes in local business rates, and of course our rent is very high. It is getting increasingly difficult for small independent shops that don’t own their own premises to keep going, especially in central London. It’s by no means certain that we can stay where we are although we love being so close to the union offices and the Universities, where we do a lot of events.
Amazon offers a fantastic service, but it comes at a huge cost – there’s so much anger at they way they treat their workers, what they do to the environment, how they dominate and crush other businesses. They’ve managed to alienate a lot of trade unionists, socialists, authors and publishers. People are looking for alternatives in lots of different ways – not just new, exciting ideas but also a place where they can learn how people have struggled in the past and what the future possibilities might be. Our staff are fantastic at connecting with the people who come in to the shop, and helping them find material that will energise and excite them. You can’t ask an Amazon algorithm for advice like that. Our customers haven’t given up. They’re optimistic that change is still possible and that we can fight to make it happen. We’ll do it together. And as we always say, Books are Weapons.
We spoke to Andrea, a bookseller and manager at Bookmarks the Socialist Bookshop.
Bookmarks is at 1 Bloomsbury Street,London, WC1B 3QE
0207 637 1848