A man who has wandered in while waiting for his delayed train from King’s Cross stands in front of our top 10 display. The £1 Penguin edition of The Communist Manifesto is at number 1, followed by a graphic biography of Rosa Luxemburg at number 2. Training for Exploitation, a new indie publication critiquing exploitative labour practices in Higher Education, is at number 3. “What sort of bookshop is this?” he asks, looking a little nervous.
Housmans, located—as it has been since 1959—just around the corner from London’s King’s Cross Station, is a radical bookshop.
I joined the small team running the shop in 2013. In recent years Housmans has been consistently busy, functioning as a useful hub for political organising as well as a bookshop. And in the past year we have just got busier, with a steady influx of new customers, packed-out evening events and rising sales.
There are many reasons for this, but it’s hard to escape the idea that in the current turbulent political climate, radical bookshops have rarely felt more important and necessary.
Many young people, newly politicised by recent events—from Trump to Brexit to Black Lives Matter—come into the shop looking for books that will help to make sense of the political moment, as well as those that might light the way forward. They also come looking for a sense of community, a place to debate ideas, meet like-minded people and plan political action. The books they are buying cover the spectrum of activist topics. Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s We Should All Be Feminists hasn’t been out of our bestseller list for years. Classics like [Frantz Fanon’s] The Wretched of the Earth and [Hannah Arendt’s] The Origins of Totalitarianism have recently surged. Well-known figures such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones share shelf space with critiques of capitalism produced by non-profits like Corporate Watch and anarchist publisher A K Press. And collections such as Kate Tempest’s Let Them Eat Chaos and Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric are among many politically charged titles that have contributed to a huge rise in poetry sales.
We have expanded our children’s section lately, too, finding no shortage of socially engaged material to fill these shelves. In fact, I’m about to make the transition from bookseller to author with a YA novel, Troublemakers [published by Andersen Press in June, priced £7.99], which explores the idea that politics is an inescapable part of all our lives. For radical booksellers, this has never been in doubt.
Catherine Barter is the co-manager of Housmans.