John Bird: Bookshops are a social necessity that can’t be allowed to die

The Big Issue backs the Independent Bookshop Alliance

When I was commissioned by a leading publisher, whose emblem was a flightless bird and whose first HQ was at the end of the runway at London Airport, I wanted to call my commissioned book I, Bonaparte. It was the name given to me in the World’s End, Chelsea at the age of 15 by Brain, a misspelt Brian, and I loved the historical association. Alas, my wiser publisher worried that people might think it was the life of a small, important Corsican – rather than a product of poverty, crime, rough sleeping and prison who happened to be born in the magic period of the post-war world. And who was to grow into usefulness through the good offices of starting a publication called The Big Issue.

I did the book under the lamer title Some Luck, and was pleased to see that if you Google this title there is a much better-known author, a Californian, who has also got a book with the same name. If I ever reproduce it, it will be called I, Bonaparte because I had such deep-seated aggrandised feelings that I, probably like the original, believed I was the greatest person on earth.

I still suffer from a Napoleonic complex and you will please forgive me if you meet me and it all breaks out as I describe my plans to take over the world. But at least it got rid of my love of Hitler, when I – as an illiterate, post-war crime stat – venerated and divested all of the books about him from the King’s Road, Knightsbridge and Earl’s Court. What a piece of social rubbish I was until, finally, in boys’ prison, I was allowed to practise my reading and become literate, getting rid of my vile racism. And then books and learning – through reading, and not from nicking them – became a major part of my life. The fact that I’m now a posh git is largely due to reading and being obsessed by books; hence my love of bookshops. For knowledge and understanding are surely the strongest ways to stamp out anti-semitism.

To me, a town, village or city is empty without the power of a bookshop. The power to turn a high street into something that holds a vast social echo. That, through its increasing presence, will be full of readings, discussions, and (at times) nice cups of tea.

Photo: © 2017 David Levensonmail@davidlevenson.com07836358831
Image: David Levenson

That is why we have to fight for bookshops. Every last one is precious to us, our quality of life, our literature, our public spaces and communities. We have to do whatever is humanly possible. That is why – from book thief to bookshop defender – I am in love with the new initiative called the Independent Bookshop Alliance. And I was pleased to bring them to Parliament to launch their initiative last Thursday.

We must protect and proactively help these centres of social good. We must try and get communities to adopt them, for local authorities to see them as a plus in their boroughs and cities, for publishers to see them as equals. And we must link this fight to the battles to save our libraries and also to enhance school campaigns to make more of our children literate.

There is no coincidence that, as a child who couldn’t read and write, I got into trouble. It is no coincidence that, if you bring people the power of the book, you reduce the emptiness that is sometimes filled with anti-social outbursts.

But my love of books predates reading. When, in an orphanage, I went to a local Christmas party, I won at musical chairs. This meant I could put my hand into a large barrel of wrapped-up prizes. I rummaged around and came up with what felt like a book. I took it back and would not unwrap it. When one of the nuns asked why I hadn’t unwrapped it, I asked logically “Well, I can’t read, so why unwrap it?” She uncovered it for me, and against my wishes. Adults can be dumb sometimes.

Book love got me into printing. I’ve printed books for all manner of people. I love printing and love books, and have been asked to join the Worshipful Company of Stationers and Newspaper Makers. I’ll join if they’ll have me, and I will try and be useful to the trades.

But back to bookshops! I love ’em, old, new, and realise that you have to be devoted to knowledge and its spread to even consider opening one or running one. Alas, FJ Ward’s of the King’s Road is with us no more. Nor is the Penguin bookshop (that flightless bird) on the same stretch. Truelove & Hanson is no longer in Knightsbridge. And all the little bookshops of my childhood are mostly gone. John Sandoe of Chelsea still survives. I miss the chats I had with Mr Sandoe, alas no longer with us, in the fifties, sixties and seventies. And I can put my hand on my heart, as I said to the late Mr Sandoe, and say “I never nicked off yer, sir! God’s truth.” And for it to be true.  

Social-echoing bookshops are right up all our streets; let’s hope, forever.

Main image: Getty 

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