For decades the names of Charing Cross Road and Bloomsbury in central London have been synonymous with independent bookshops. But in recent years these stores have been squeezed by increasing financial pressures.
Bookmarks, the independent socialist bookshop based in Bloomsbury and official book supplier to the TUC, knows only too well of these pressures.
“Independent bookstores in central London are being hit by two things – the property boom that is driving up rents, and developments in the book trade aimed at chasing profits,” says Mark Thomas, manager of Bookmarks.
This situation was highlighted last week by the announcement that Gay’s The Word, Britain’s last surviving specialist lesbian and gay bookshop, faces closure unless it raises enough cash to pay its soaring rent bill.
High streets across Britain are becoming more homogenous, says Mark, with ever larger retail chains dominating the market and driving out smaller independent competitors.
“Waterstones has announced that it is shutting a number of stores and retreating from ‘academic and humanities’ titles. Borders is thinking of leaving the British market altogether – not because it isn’t making a profit, but because it’s not making enough profit.
“Added to this is an increasing focus on shifting the most profitable titles from the biggest publishers. The big players are starting to shape and dictate what sort of books get published in the first place.”
But Bookmarks is fighting back on two fronts, says Mark. It is focusing on providing a service to the labour and anti-war movements that the corporate retailers cannot or will not provide.
And it is promoting an appeal to these movements for £50,000 to secure its premises in central London and ensure it can continue to play its crucial role in the radical political movement.
“The point of Bookmarks is to take books into the movement – whether it’s stalls at anti-war marches or at trade union conferences across the country, and above all about having a shop with thousands of books that challenge the way society is organised today.
“For instance, take Tariq Ali’s book The Clash Of Fundamentalisms, which came out at the very beginning of the ‘war on terror’. We sold over 1,000 copies of that book and provided a crucial link between a radical writer like Tariq and his audience.
“Another example is Craig Murray’s book Murder In Samarkand. We sold 40 copies when he came to Bookmarks to talk about the book, and we’ll promote it because we know it’s of interest to anti-war activists, socialists and trade unionists. For the major chains, it’s just another book.”
Bookmarks launched its £50,000 appeal last autumn and has raised around a third of this target so far. “We’ve had wonderful support from a whole range of people, including Tony Benn and Noam Chomsky,” says Mark. “But it’s the trade unions that are crucial to our funding.
“We’ve received money from four national trade unions – the T&G, the CWU, the FBU and Bectu, as well as donations from trades councils and branches across the country – but we need to raise much more.”
The shop is now appealing for individuals and trade union branches to become “friends of Bookmarks” by making a suggested donation of £250. Model motions for trade union branches are available on request.
“This is basically an appeal for solidarity with the bookshop,” says Mark. “Like every institution in the socialist and labour movement we depend on the support of activists.”
The appeal also features a series of bookshop events that have proved very popular so far, with authors such as Mike Davis and China Miéville speaking to and debating with packed audiences about their works.
The next such event is on Thursday 19 April, when BBC Newsnight’s business editor Paul Mason will be talking about his new book Live Working Or Die Fighting – How The Working Class Went Global.
“There’s a tremendous thirst for radical ideas out there,” says Mark. “We’re determined not to let changes in the book trade and the property boom prevent us from getting those radical ideas out there and increasing the punch of the movement.”