Having successfully weathered “fascists, landlords, recessions and Thatcherism”, NEWS FROM NOWHERE COMMUNITY AND RADICAL BOOKSHOP is currently celebrating its 40th birthday. Founded on May Day 1974, the much-loved retailer has been resident on at its current address at 96 Bold Street since 1996, and has been a welcoming hub of Liverpool’s radical community ever since.
A series of events under the banner WeBe40 has been running since May Day 2014 to acknowledge this landmark anniversary, casting a light on the varied activities and campaigns in which News From Nowhere has been involved since its inception, proving that it’s more than just a bookshop. Kicking off with the celebratory all-day shindig at the Adelphi, the WeBe40 festivities continued throughout May with a month-long exhibition at The Bluecoat, which will also play host to a Radical Book Fair at the beginning of June. If you’re new to the News From Nowhere story then the exhibition at The Hub is a good place to start your journey.
Taking its name from designer/free thinker William Morris’ 1890 utopian socialism novel, the News From Nowhere moniker reflected the principles of the shop’s founders, ones that are still very much in place to this day.
“The bookshop was started in 1974 by Bob Dent, who had been a student at the LSE, along with a woman from a Liverpool Chinese family called Maggie Wellings,” explains longest-serving member of staff Mandy Vere during a quiet afternoon in the shop. “They decided to come back to Liverpool and set up a radical bookshop – at the time there were ones starting all over the country – so they found tiny little premises near the Birkenhead Tunnel.”
“At the time you couldn’t have got the kind of left-wing literature that they were stocking anywhere; the mainstream shops wouldn’t have stocked it,” Mandy recalls. “In 1977 we moved to Whitechapel. We were able to expand a bit and one or two other women joined [the co-operative] and we started stocking lots of feminist stuff, as we were all involved in the women’s movement.” The new premises, despite being larger and more visible, brought some new problems, however.
“We were very cutting edge and seen as very subversive for years, and during that period – the early eighties – we had a lot of fascist attacks,” Mandy recalls of a fairly turbulent time, where Liverpool seemed to be at a stage where the country’s social upheavals played out on a magnified scale. “It was after the Toxteth Uprisings, the Falklands War, the Miner’s Strike; there was trouble on the streets all the time and a lot of hostility towards any activists, and we were being targeted by really nasty right-wing fascist groups. They were targeting a lot of radical bookshops around the country, but we bore the brunt of it. In a sense it showed how powerful books and information are, that to the fascists it was something they had to suppress. We had literally ten to twelve arson attacks at night.”
After bravely enduring this for several years, the decision was understandably made to relocate. “It was one of the reasons we needed to move from there: A) trade was going down and we couldn’t survive financially; and B) all those attacks throughout the eighties. When we eventually got to move in 1989 to Bold Street, we knew as soon as we got there it was our spiritual home. It was the bohemian, cultural, creative end of town and we were absolutely delighted.”
Possibly due to the good karma the organisation had built up over the previous decade, fate decreed that NfN should have one of the finest shopfronts in the city centre. “Number 96 used to be a health food shop; they were closing down and the guy who owned it decided to sell up completely, so we were faced with trying to raise the money to buy the building,” Mandy says. “At the time it seemed astronomical, but now it’s peanuts. For £75,000 we bought this whole five-storey building. We had to raise that and another hundred grand to do the place up. Loads of organisations and individuals donated and gave us interest-free loans. That was phenomenal; that showed us how much people saw it as their bookshop: it wasn’t our bookshop, it didn’t belong to us; it was the people’s bookshop, and that totally proved it.”
Landladies to a small group of like-minded organisations, NfN’s adjoining building Liver House also houses venerable grassroots culture magazine Nerve, Liverpool Pride, Next To Nowhere social/activist centre and the city centre branch of Liverpool Methodists. It’s also something of a cultural landmark on one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares, and a place where I had the pleasure of interviewing Alexei Sayle in 2011, crammed in to the stockroom after a book signing for his memoir Stalin Ate My Homework.
Run as a worker’s co-operative where everyone has equal wages and an equal say, these principles are echoed among the shop’s shelves. “We lean towards anything progressive, radical, socialist, feminist, anti-racist, internationalist, anything that is pro-humanity. We wouldn’t bother making shelf space for things that are negative and don’t contribute towards progressive thought,” Mandy says of the shop’s stocking decisions. “Every bookshop in the world makes choices everyday about what to stock and a lot of them will make choices on purely commercial grounds, whereas we make choices on ethical and political grounds.”
While political and activist-themed writing occupies a significant portion of the shop, NfN stocks an extensive range of lesser-known fiction, histories and children’s novels, while also featuring a music section, tying in with the shop’s Africa Oyé record stall.
“I think it’s more important than ever that people can come into an independent bookshop and find things they never knew existed,” Mandy states. “You can’t do that online. They’ll tell you, ‘Well you liked that, so you’ll like this’. What is that based on? It isn’t anything real. Whereas someone will come in here ask for a book they’ve maybe heard of then discover something else.”
Highlighting the bookshop’s community aspect Mandy explains that “We always try to support local talent, authors, poets and musicians. We see News From Nowhere very much as a resource in terms of the books we stock and the information we provide about campaigns and community events and groups. Where cultural and political issues intersect, News From Nowhere can be really effective.”
Forty years seems like a good point to take stock of a rich and vital past, but the News From Nowhere story is far from reaching its denouement. The upcoming Radical Bookfair at The Bluecoat will continue their boundary-pushing trend, featuring book stalls, poetry readings and discussion panels, including comic actor turned author/activist Robert Llewellyn (known to millions as Kryten from Red Dwarf ), appearing alongside debut novelist Desiree Reynolds as part of Fiction As Dissent. “The bookshop’s not just owned financially but [also] culturally and politically by the people of Liverpool. We feel like we’re just the custodians who keep it going,” Mandy says.
They say life begins at forty. Let’s all raise a glass to the real Amazons.
Radical Bookfair takes place on Sunday 1st June at The Bluecoat.