By Jane Cholmeley

Mudlark. 376 pages. Ł16.99. ISBN 978-0-00-856104-6

Reviewed by Jim Burns

I’ve always loved bookshops. Any kind of bookshops, ranging from those belonging to a big chain such as Waterstone’s to independent shops, whether selling new or second-hand books or a combination of both, and even those back-street outlets which were frowned on by the respectable but which sold often hard-to-get pulp crime novels and westerns alongside some dubious magazines. Over the past seventy or so years I’ve prowled them all, hunting for the obscure, occasionally finding it, and picking up other things along the way. I once had a conversation with a man on a flight to Spain who said he couldn’t understand my enthusiasm for bookshops and  wasn’t it easier to just order over the internet? He’d missed the point. Browsing in shops means you sometimes come across the unknown, the unusual or the unexpected, and it’s much more fun to do that than wait for the post to arrive. Yes, we all now do order over the internet out of necessity, the number of bookshops having declined in the past twenty years. But you have to know what you want and there aren’t any surprises when it turns up. As I write this review the latest Times Literary Supplement has been delivered and there’s a note lamenting “the depleted state of the Charing Cross Road”, once a happy hunting ground for those who delighted in descending into basements to see what they could discover.    

One of the bookshops on Charing Cross Road in the 1980s and 1990s was Silver Moon, proudly proclaiming itself as a feminist establishment and aiming to cater primarily for what was becoming a developing readership for relevant literature. The Women’s Movement had been growing in various ways since the 1960s, and the time seemed ripe to Jane Cholmeley and her partner Sue Butterworth for a bookshop in Central London that would stock feminist and lesbian literature and provide a place where women could meet and mingle with the like-minded as they looked along the shelves for their favourite authors or in anticipation of coming across writers they had only heard about but wanted to read. There was an existing feminist bookshop, Sisterwrite, but it was located in Islington. Charing Cross Road, still noted in 1984 for its range of bookshops, seemed to be a better spot to attract passing trade as well as those who would make a special journey to find what they wanted.

For Jane Cholmeley, daughter of the “curate at St James’ in Weybridge” (her mother was the daughter of the churchwarden), opening a bookshop was something of a step into the unknown. She had been sent to boarding school when she was seven, then to an Anglican convent school when she was fourteen. University (not named) followed and a year’s scholarship at a Methodist college in Lynchburg, Virginia. Cholmeley describes herself as, in those days, “diligent, obedient, even timid”. Back in England she worked as a secretary at Yale University Press, moved on to Macdonald Educational and met Sue Butterworth, who became her partner.  

When the pair decided to open a bookshop that would be largely dedicated to selling books by women writers they knew that they would not only face specific problems relating to their special interests.  There were  also more-general difficulties that any new business has to deal with. Where could they acquire suitable premises, how much would the rent be and the cost of conversion? On the question of premises Cholmeley says, “Door after door was slammed in our faces. Estate agents wouldn’t send us details or wouldn’t show us properties, and it became increasingly clear that the fifty-ninth branch of MacDonald’s was welcome but two middle-aged women with a business plan, a dream and no track record were not”.

That they did eventually locate themselves at 68 Charing Cross Road was a tribute to their perseverance, and also to the financial help they received from friends and relatives. And sympathetic treatment by Greater London Council (GLC), keen to retain Charing Cross Road as a centre for bookshops, though that organisation was under threat from the right-wing government of Mrs Thatcher. Cholmeley has interesting things to say about the battles with bureaucracy and other matters of a similar nature. She also tells of the problems encountered when taking over what she describes as “a hovel, a dark and dingy hovel. It was full of encrusted dirt, which we convinced ourselves was “character”. The wiring looked pre-war – Boer War – and the lighting was rubbish. We crawled around with torches”. There were rickety stairs and no heating. As a wanderer up and down Charing Cross Road from the late-1950s onwards I must have been in that bookshop without taking too much notice of its condition, but I was a veteran of dingy, badly-lit premises and climbing over piles of old books. There was even a certain romanticism attached to the experience, especially if I came across something of interest.

However, when  Silver Moon opened in 1984 it was clean, well-lit, and had its shelves stocked with brand new books. Its next-door neighbour was Collet’s left-wing bookshop, a regular calling-place for me whenever I was in London, so I was aware of Silver Moon. I can remember going in to enquire about possible American reprints of 1930s women radical writers like Tillie Olson, Tess Slesinger,  Josephine Herbst, Meridel le Sueur, and Myra Page. The staff were friendly and helpful if usually a little baffled by the names. But I was conscious of the fact that by devoting their stock to mostly feminist and lesbian literature they were doing something valuable. The 1980s were still a time of open misogyny and prejudice, as Silver Moon was soon to experience.

There were obscene telephone calls, insults in the street and sometimes even in the shop, and Cholmeley herself was the victim of a physical attack. The police weren’t always helpful or sympathetic, though they were quick to visit the shop when a poster attacking the notorious Section 28 of the Local Government Act was displayed in the window. Briefly, Section 28 said that local authorities should not “promote homosexuality or publish material with the intention of promoting homosexuality”. I recall that it was a contentious issue at the time, and aroused strong reactions among various groups of people, not all of them necessarily right-wing in their general political opinions.

As a way of attracting people to Silver Moon a series of readings was organised, initially in the basement of the shop but, as audience numbers grew, in outside centres. Cholmeley gives a long list of those who read, including such well-known names as P.D. James, Ruth Rendell, Adrienne Rich, Maya Angelou, Alice Walker, and Toni Morrison. What comes through in the accounts of the readings is the way that both performers and audiences responded in kind. The Women’s Movement had been expanding and people were rightly becoming more supportive of each other, and more assertive in their demands to be treated with respect. It  was still a struggle.  Cholmeley quotes from a report by the male chair of Westminster  City Council (Conservative controlled) Library Services sub-committee, who objected to a publication “where emphasis was given to books on feminism......it is felt that it is political to emphasise an area of society which many people do not agree with and in many cases strongly  object to”.  Cholmeley comments  “Haven’t you come across it again and again? Challenging the status quo is ‘political’ but maintaining it is not”.

Silver Moon built up a solid reputation as a major feminist bookshop, but ran into the sort of problems that many independent shops came up against in the 1990s. Orders from libraries, essential for shops lucky enough to have them on a regular basis, declined as local authorities suffered cutbacks in their funding.  The abandonment of the Net Book Agreement (with publishers and booksellers agreeing not to sell below the fixed retail price) in 1994 opened the door for Amazon, supermarkets, and large chains like Waterstone’s to cut prices. It was also noticeable that Waterstone’s and other big shops had “jumped on the bandwagon” and started to display special sections of radical and, feminist writing.  And the Internet was beginning to impose itself on how people  bought books. Silver Moon, like other bookshops, had operated a mail-order service, but couldn’t compete with the low prices that Amazon offered.  Add to the problems that I’ve referred to a factor such as the steep rent increases imposed by the Soho Housing Association, which had taken over when the GLC was abolished, and the writing was on the wall.

Silver Moon closed its doors in November 2001. It was a time when other independent outlets were giving up. Many of the “alternative” bookshops that I used to visit as I travelled to various towns and cities were no longer there. Even a major shop like Compendium in Camden Town threw in the towel. I’m not sure that the changes outlined in the previous paragraph were completely responsible for what happened. There had been a shift in how people saw society. They were more individualistic and the dreams and hopes of the 1960s and 1970s had dissipated to a large degree. There were still struggles to be engaged in on behalf of particular groups but perhaps a broader feeling of challenging the status quo no longer seemed worthwhile.  One simply looked after  one’s own interests.

A Bookshop of One’s Own is an engaging book. Jane Cholmeley writes clearly and has a sense of humour, but also a sense of anger at some of the situations she had to deal with both as an individual and as the owner of a bookshop. Her life wasn’t all smooth sailing, either from a personal or business point of view. That she survived it all is a tribute to her belief in what she was doing when she and Sue Butterworth took the decision to open Silver Moon.








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