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FREEWHEEL BOOKSHOP

Background

"As a multiple we like dealing in multiples" was what WH Smith told a Royal Commission on the Press published in 1977. Smith's refusal to handle small, radical magazines were given in economic terms but the real reasons it seems were political. The Minority Press Group found in 1980 that discrimination occurs not on economic grounds (wholesalers received the same cut whatever the title) but through sheer dislike for the views expressed. Many of the country's smaller wholesalers would have little to do with small magazines which didn't project careful marketing or social respectability. To the publications themselves, it was a rigged system of censorship. Undercurrents, (a magazine interested in alternative living and energy sources) had a circulation of around 6000 and managed to be accepted for a trial distribution by Surridge Dawson. But when their first issue had an article about how to grow your own dope the deal was ended. It was two different worlds. The attempt at wider distribution would not have been made if it weren't for the efforts of the Publications Distribution Co-operative (PDC) which was specifically created to fulfil the needs of about 70 small radical magazines. PDC operated through alternative bookshops and wholefood stores.

In 1980 a conference of radical booksellers called "Working Together" had an agenda for debate on such topics as fascist attacks on bookshops and what to do about shoplifters when you don't trust the police. The conference estimated that there was about 100 alternative bookshops in the country. With names like Days of Hope (Newcastle), First of May (Edinburgh), Neges (Swansea), Full Marx (Bristol), News From Nowhere (Liverpool), Grass Roots (Manchester), Sisterwrite (Islington), Mushroom (Nottingham) and the Public House (Brighton) they successfully carved out a niche away from conventional bookselling. These shops didn't have the same ambitions of profitability as the mainstream: "If a radical bookshop can pay its workers £40 a week and turn over a reasonable amount of books and perform a politically useful function, they're quite pleased," said one former bookshop worker.

The stock of books, magazines and pamphlets covered a range of subjects - from sexual politics to alternative medicine from black struggles to Ireland - which few conventional bookshops stocked. Many catered for uneconomic minority interests such as mysticism or Native Americans. Most people who worked in them were involved in the political struggles their books described and therefore had a genuinely personal approach to selling.

While the majority of radical bookshops were collectives with a few workers on low wages and a rota of volunteers they needed to be organised. "We're non-capitalists selling anti-capitalist material, but we still have to operate in a capitalist market." Some radical bookshops got funding - sometimes from the borough as a community resource, others were linked to left-wing political parties.

 

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