Inside The UK's First Black Bookshop

Will Noble
By Will Noble Last edited 7 months ago
Inside The UK's First Black Bookshop

This is the UK's first black bookshop. Rumours of its demise (at the time of writing Wikipedia claims it's permanently closed) are exaggerated. New Beacon Books is very much alive and kicking.

It's always had a fighting spirit; its roots are in black activism, in particular the struggle for the rights of those who emigrated to London. The shop — on Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park — was founded in 1966 by Trinidadian John La Rose, and his partner Sarah White. It soon manifested itself as far more than a bookshop.

Deeply involved in political activism, La Rose began New Beacon Publishing a year before the shop opened — publishing his first book of poetry, Foundations, with the money from a construction site accident. The opening poem, Word Creatures, begins:

These words
Come not trippingly,
But fall unspeakable,
From islets of truth
Within me.

It's something of a statement for what the New Beacon brand would become. The publishing company went on to produce scores of books by black writers, including a biography of the influential Pan-Africanist Marcus Garvey, and Minty Alley — CLR James's first and only published novel, which focuses on the 1920s working-classes of Port of Spain, Trinidad.

It's a book that Janice Durham counts among her favourites.

Janice Durham has been a part of the shop since the 1970s

Durham has been involved with the shop for decades — drawn into it through La Rose's son, Michael. From the age of 17, Durham was involved in "all the political goings on". She speaks to us, surrounded by the same categories that could be found here in the 1960s, everything from African fiction and the biographies of great people, to cookery and children's books.

"Before this space opened, there was no black material available," Durham tell us. "Shops weren't even willing to stock black material. And there were no publishers wanting to publish black authors."  

Soon the shop was pulling in not just Londoners, but readers from around the world. "In the summertime, a lot of Americans — African and Caribbean — used to come over just to get the books, because they couldn't find them anywhere else," says Durham.

Alongside bookselling and publishing, La Rose was creating and supporting a number of movements — often using this shop as a base. He started the Black Parents Movement when a friend of family's son was beaten up badly in Hornsey. "We used to go with placards and demand justice," says Durham.

"And the sus laws were around that time, so a lot of young people were arrested, parents didn't know what to do, so they actually used to come here for advice.

"One of the most horrendous things we were involved with was the New Cross Fire," Durham continues, "When it happened we went down there and had a meeting and John decided 'let's have a people's day of action'. We were able to mobilise 20,000 people on the streets of London that day."

Adding to new Beacon's bows, in 1991 the George Padmore Institute was established, on the floor above the bookshop. For almost 15 years, Sarah Garrod has overseen this collection of immaculately stacked grey boxes, neatly tied with cream ribbon. Among the texts and clippings here are extensive collections on London Caribbean Artists Movement, and the education of black children in the city during the 1960s and 70s.

Much of the material comes from La Rose himself, a real hoarder by all accounts, and someone who seemed to know the significance this material would someday have.

It's not the written documents that excite Garrod most, though, but the ephemera: "To me what really makes the archive is the non-text side of things," she explains, "it's the placards and the neck boards, the things that are handwritten."

Certainly it's something of a thrill to see something created in the moment, something that wasn't supposed to last.

She takes out a placard to show us, relating to Newton Rose, who was freed from a murder sentence, following staunch campaigning from the black community.

Images and a bust of John La Rose, at the George Padmore Institute

Indeed, many of the campaigns led and supported by La Rose were — perhaps surprisingly — successful. "Most of the time," says Garrod, "suspects had done absolutely nothing. They were just taken down the police station.

"In a number of cases the judges basically dropped the case. They actually asked for the police to be investigated in some cases.  They criticized the police for bringing the things to court.  

"It was a big turning point."

The archive is at something of a crossroads itself. "We'd like to take in a lot more than we do," admits Garrod, explaining that they are currently in discussions about how best to store, grow and promote the archive. As it stands, they are having to turn away some donations. That's something they want to change. The plan is also to tour the archive more, such as they did at the Dream To Change the World exhibition at Islington Museum. Again, taking the collection to the people has got that New Beacon style of being active.

"I was seeking out a bookshops that had this sort of material in it," she says, "I actually come from Cheshire and in the north we only had one black bookshop. So when I came here I saw that there was this abundance of material... I think I was doing somersaults!" Leileth James-Dunkley

While rumours of New Beacon's demise may be exaggerated, they aren't unfounded. With budget cuts to schools and libraries, bigger suppliers offering meatier discounts tend to score the contracts, rather than small fish like New Beacon Books. But they are fighting back.

"We were too invisible," admits Leileth James-Dunkley, who is spearheading New Beacon's 21st century revival. James-Dunkley started out here as a customer, before falling in love with the place. Now she wants to save it.

The latest move is a gofundme campaign for £10k —  which will be used to to spearhead new events, and ensure New Beacon Books is not just a static bookshop. It is, says, James-Dunkley, a push to 'resurrect' La Rose's ethos. In many ways, New Beacon is going back to its 1960s roots — a time when it was a community hub, somewhere to think, to talk and to learn.

That's something outlets like Amazon can't offer, and New Beacon's plan appears to be paying off. "Because we've now become a lot more visible through social media it's actually completely changed the dynamic within the store. It's allowed us to have a very bustling, busy store," says James-Dunkley.

Durham agrees: "A lot of people are coming from Lewisham, Croydon now saying 'oh my goodness, I didn't even know you existed!"

Indeed, for any kind of independent bookshop these days —notably on a weekday — New Beacon is decidedly busy. Among the old faithfuls, popping in for a chat and a recommendation, new bookworms are evident too. We catch Natalie on her first time here: "I just moved to the area and I've walked past the shop lots, and always wanted to come in," she tells us. "I'm really happy I did. today I'm buying Invisible Man, and The Souls of Black Folk."

James-Dunkley is all too happy to explain to her newest customer the significance of both these books. If she continues to come here, Natalie will come to realise the significance of this shop.

La Rose died in 2006, although White, who lives down the road, is a regular visitor, speaking to the employees and volunteers, while continuing to drip feed sections of her partner's huge collections to the institute upstairs.  

While the founders' legacy lives on in this slightly ramshackle, but infinitely colourful, bookshop, it's heartening to see the place making itself visible once more — a beacon for London's black community, and for independent bookshops city-wide.  

Durham holds up a couple of recommendations
The shop also sells a selection of cards
One of the books new customer Natalie bought
Sarah Garrod, who looks after the extensive archive upstairs
James-Dunkley, with Minty Alley and a book on the New Cross fire

Help New Beacon Books hit its fundraising target here.

Or visit the shop and buy a couple of books: New Beacon Books, 76 Stroud Green Road, Finsbury Park, N4 3EN. Open Wednesday-Saturday, 1.30pm-6pm

The George Padmore Institute remains open to the public, via advance booking.

Last Updated 17 March 2017