Shelf assessment! It may be closing its doors, but the future looks bright for pioneering black bookstore
Amid 50th birthday celebrations, comes jarring announcement that bookshop is to close in January
05 December, 2016 — By Angela Cobbinah
New Beacon Books in Stroud Green Road
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 Trinidadian 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 multicultural 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.
John La Rosa and Sarah White, pictured in the 1990s
“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 writer and poet, 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 Moorgate.
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’s home in Albert Road, Finsbury Park, for distribution to events and meetings, with Sarah often doing the deliveries on her 50cc Honda scooter. In 1973 the bookshop proper opened in nearby Stroud Green Road, becoming a treasure trove of progressive literature and thought. It was also a community hub,