When I was studying for my MA in Literature a fellow student told me that he'd been to Waterstones in Oxford and that an American assistant had expressed interest that he'd purchased a book on the second generation Romantics, and remarked that she was studying for a PhD on 'Shelley and Music'. My friend slunk away in tongue-tied ignorance of how to react to that announcement. Although equally ignorant of Shelley and music I doubt if I'd have reacted in the same way, but then in my experience of Waterstones I've never experienced such a response to buying a book.
About ten years ago – when studying for my own PhD on the working-class anarchist novelist and playwright Lionel Britton, I ordered Melba Cuddy-Keane's Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual and the Public Sphere from Waterstones in Nottingham, as it was important for my chapter on working-class modernism, arguing that mainstream modernism has never been the elitism that some critics claim. Cuddy-Keane's book was a pretty obscure work and as the assistant handed it to me and I fished in my wallet for my credit card, he almost whispered the price of this very slim CUP book – '£27' – adding 'That's the price of education.'
Well, as a former working-class kid from a virtually bookless family – to my knowledge my father only bought one novel in his life, which was Lady Chatterley's Lover, and that was only to discover just how 'terrible', as he put it, the 'language' was – I know it's impossible to put a price on education. At the time, the arcane nature of libraries – an arcaneness protected by snooty librarians and assistants determined (I imagined) to prevent people (particularly members of the working class) from gaining access to knowledge – was a very difficult barrier to breech, although I made it through, albeit very late in the day but still (post-PhD) have a determinedly Foucauldian view of some librarians, plus an inexplicable residual fear of them.
Enter, then, independent bookshops in Nottingham in my intellectual foraging. Bux was a wonderful shop before the Broad Marsh bulldozers moved in on Drury Hill, which could have been a fine example of Nottingham's quaint past. There, I could (as a budding hippie) stock up on the latest issues of such 'underground' magazines as IT (International Times) and Oz (some time before the (harmless but considered provocative) Schoolkids issue), as well as buy, for instance, (as my interests broadened) a book called McLuhan: Hot and Cool, which influenced me in a number of ways. Unfortunately – towards Bux's end, long after its move to Lincoln Street – they found it necessary to employ a highly obvious young female store detective twirling about on a stool in the center. It felt like the end had already come.
Later – thoroughly pissed off by the library-like snootiness of the main Nottingham bookstore on Wheeler Gate, Sisson & Parker – I decided to order books from Concord Books on Woodborough Road, run by the vegetarian, pacifist, Friend of the Earth and (I seem to remember) teetotaller David Lane.
My first conversation with David was about Theodore Roszak, as David had met him, and I came to order a few of Roszak's books through Concord. Whiling away my time in Nottingham before moving on to university, I was forced at the time – in order to gain independent student status – to work for three years.
And I worked at Nottingham Central Library (then on south Sherwood Street) for eighteen months in order to acquire that status, developing all kinds of psychosomatic illnesses in the process. Some lunchtimes – maybe twice a week – I visited Concord Books and ate my sandwiches there washed down with David's crazy sanity.
On one of the last times I visited him before I left the country for a few months touring Provence in its healing sunshine, and before I began at Leicester University to study single-subject French, David was frantically trying to get through to the French Embassy to protest about some ecological catastrophe or other. I couldn't help thinking that all the phone calls wouldn't necessarily help his business's declining finances.
All this is to say that independent bookshops are vital: where, other than Concord Books, would I have bought all those books about the population explosion, the evils of Concorde (the plane), a signed copy of Richard St. Barbe Baker's My Life, My Trees, a book on the Tuparmaros of Uruguay (even though David was to some extent apolitical and saw 'left' and 'right' as largely irrelevant terms), etc.
I have little memory of Mushroom – I believe that much of the time I was living elsewhere – although I remember finding a cherished copy of Linton Kwesi Johnson's poems there.
But now – after thirteen years of independent bookshop drought – there is a new one in Nottingham: Five Leaves Bookshop, in an alley at the side of The Works (or Primark), Long Row. Created by Ross Bradshaw of Five Leaves Publications, this is a bold venture in these times, and the above publicity card lists the bookshop's specialities:
'History and landscape, politics, fiction and poetry, lesbian and gay, counterculture, psychology, weird and wonderful, international writing, magazines and journals.
Specialising in independent publishers'.
Children's books and Roma were added after this was printed (plus there's a section on the Beats). The rationale seems to be no royal family (hurrah!), no military history (hurrah!), no Jamie (hurrah!), and no celebrity biographies – ditto, although the wonderful new Mozzer book is to be stocked: see below for my coverage of it, or click on this for the same (although I'd pass on it if you're a Daily Mail reader): Morrissey's Autobiography.
I have hardly any time for venturing into Nottingham city center (like Moz, I prefer the more logical American orthography) these days, but Penny and I managed a flying visit: Penny – a very late convert to growling Leonard Cohen – was interested in the material on her ageing hero, whereas I was amazed to see a copy of Susheila Nasta's Wasifiri, a magazine that I know from years of experience can lure you into its literary web and just leave you there to fight your way out of.
I was very pleased to see several books by B. S. Johnson, one the few experimental writers so different from the usual largely boring mess of English – as opposed to British – literature (yawns such as Amis, McEwan, Mantel, etc). But missing was Jonathan Coe's Like A Fiery Elephant: The Story of B.S. Johnson: surely his best work and far more interesting than his fictional efforts?
I could go on and on, rambling, but I'll just say support British independent bookshops such as the highly commendable Five Leaves or they'll die: use somewhere else for showrooming – these kinds of places can and should educate you as they educated (and continue to educate) me.