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IN PRAISE OF BOOKSELLERS

John Dunton

 

Not too long ago a friend told me about an evening he spent in a pub with some young poets. One of them had recently had a collection published and it had been reviewed in the TLS. The poet spent the whole time wanting to discuss in detail what the review had said and why, and she clearly had little interest in any conversation that might revolve around books generally or anything else other than her own work. My own experience over the years is that this is sadly typical. These days I don't mix much with poets and I don't care to, and some of the best conversations about books and writers that I've had have been with publishers and printers and booksellers. And it occurs to me that these people have often done far more for literature than any number of minor poets with yet more mediocre books that simply add to the catalogue of mostly-unread publications.

I was put in mind of this when I read an obituary of Barry Hall. I wonder how many poets will know who he was? For the record, he was behind Goliard Press, which, in the 1960s, printed and published books by Elaine Feinstein, Charles Olson, Aram Saroyan, and others. Hall wasn't only publishing books, he was helping to bring work by the people mentioned to the attention of an insular British audience. He had spent a year in San Francisco in the early-1960s and as a consequence was friendly with many of the poets and painters identified with the San Francisco Renaissance. He didn't only print for Goliard, he produced books for Bernard Stone's Turret Press and Stuart Montgomery's Fulcrum Press, including the first edition of Basil Bunting's Briggflatts.

Later in the 1960s, Goliard operated under the Jonathan Cape Umbrella as Cape Goliard, with Hall including Neruda, Ginsberg, Paul Blackburn, and Gael Turnbull in his list. I recall with pleasure a beautiful edition of Ginsberg's T.V.Baby Poems, and well-produced editions of Turnbull's Scantlings and John Wieners' Nerves. I don't suppose the young poet obsessed with her review in the TLS will have heard of most of these writers, but they were and remain well worth reading. Hall obviously loved their work and getting it into print wasn't simply a job for him. Like many of his kind, when he thought that he'd done what he'd set out to do he walked out, went to America again, and then to Kenya, where he died in October, 1995.

I mentioned that Hall produced books for Bernard Stone, and I am reminded of the many times I've browsed in the various bookshops he had over the years. I say "had" because he sadly closed down his operations, ill-health and the massive costs of running a specialist shop in Central London finally combining to defeat him. He had a shop in Kensington Church Walk in the early-1970s, moved to Floral Street in Covent Garden, then to Lamb's Conduit Street, and finally to Great Queen Street. I think I have the sequence right. But wherever he was the shop was always open house to writers, publishers, little magazine editors, and others, and Bernard was never slow to open a bottle of wine or pour out a glass of vodka, no matter what the hour. He was always also good for a conversation about books. He had readings in his shops and they were sometimes near-riotous affairs, with drunken poets sliding down piles of books and Bernard watching it all with an amused eye. His shop was stocked with small press publications, little magazines, and off-beat editions, not to mention some rare old books. He published poets, too, in his Turret series, and I wonder if he ever got the thanks he deserved? Too many poets often take the view that editors and publishers are there for their benefit. A friend who edited a magazine once asked a poet he'd published if he'd approach a bookshop in his area to see if they'd stock the magazine. The poet was indignant and refused on the grounds that he was a creator and it certainly wasn't his job to do the dirty business of selling the magazine.

Bernard Stone wasn't the only one who tried to make bookselling more than a mere commercial occupation, and Barry Miles for a time ran Better Books in Charing Cross Road as an outpost of the small press and little magazine movement of the 1960s until the owners (Zwemmer's) got tired of the low profits and the high level of oddball characters hanging around the place. He then opened up Indica Books in Southampton Row and that was an equally exciting location to pick up the latest books and magazines from American and British presses, as well as material linked to the historical continuity of modernism. It's curious how so many of today's young poets have little or no real awareness of this continuity and instead work mostly within a British (sometimes even just English) framework. Indica became famous as the "underground" scene of the 1960s developed and the newspaper-format International Time moved the spotlight away from literary concerns. The pop hordes moved in with, to my mind, disastrous results, though Indica continued to be a shop worth visiting.

Compendium Books opened up in the late-1960s, with the indefatigable Nick Kimberley ensuring that its stock of poetry and avant-garde writing was always up-to-date. There simply wasn't anywhere else carrying such a range of material for those who didn't think that the mainline bookshops had it all. Kimberley opened up his own shop, Duck Soup, in a little alley off Red Lion Square and tried to maintain it as somewhere to obtain the unusual. I'm just pulling out memories, of course, when naming these shops, and there were others. And I'm also concentrating on places I personally visited from around 1960 onwards. Someone ought to write a book about the famous bookshops which have, over the years, acted as centres for literary activities. A few, such as Sylvia Beach's Shakespeare and Company in Paris and Lawrence Ferlinghetti's City Lights in San Francisco, have become well-known through being identified with specific groups. Shakespeare and Company was home to the 1920s expatriates like Hemingway and Robert McAlmon and will always be associated with the original publication of Joyce's Ulysses. Ferlinghetti's shop, which opened in the 1950s, attracted the San Francisco writers, including the Beats, and also became the centre for the City Lights publications, which included Ginsberg's Howl But what about David Archer's shop in Parton Street, London, which, in the 1930s, was where the young British modernists gathered? George Barker, David Gascoyne, Charles Madge, and Dylan Thomas, met there, and the shop acted as a base for Roger Roughton's surrealist-influenced magazine, Contemporary Poetry and Prose. Archer is a virtually-forgotten figure now, mentioned only in memoirs of the 1930s and the Soho bohemia of the 1940s, but he did the essential work of running a bookshop when it was needed and helping to get new writers into print.

I could go on listing. What about George Whitman's rambling Shakespeare and Company (same name but not the same location as Sylvia Beach's shop)? But I think of so many which, selling new books, or second-hand books, or a mixture, have provided what I think of as one of the essentials of a civilised life. I was recently introduced to someone working in Waterstone's and his name stirred a faint memory of the Trent Bookshop in Nottingham, shortlived, I seem to recall, but somewhere to find poetry and experimental literature, and at some point in the 1960s, they ran a weekend festival at which Roy Fisher, Jon Silkin, G.S. Fraser, Jonathan Williams, and many more, appeared. The man who effected this introduction was Geoffrey Clifton, who had a fine theatre and cinema bookshop in Manchester which was the haunt of writers and actors and academics. You could talk to him about books and what was in them. His shop closed when the local council decided to increase the rent by 100%, this at a time when they were supposedly promoting the city as home for a Year of Drama and around the corner from the threatened bookshop were some well-furnished offices staffed by smooth bureaucrats engaged in the process. It seemed typical of the times to close down an excellent specialist bookshop while pumping more money into an ever-expanding bureaucracy.

Bill Butler had a bookshop in Brighton many years ago and got himself prosecuted by the local police, who took exception to some of the modern literature he stocked though nearby shops openly displayed racks of girlie-magazines. Another bookseller, Larry Wallrich, who then had a first-rate second-hand shop near the British Museum, published a large collection of poems and prose to raise funds for Butler's defence and got contributions from Michael Hamburger, Thorn Gunn, Ginsberg, Ferlinghetti, and a number of other contemporary writers. Despite the support the case broke Butler's back as a bookseller and he closed down, which is presumably what the authorities wanted. It's easier to turn a blind eye to pornography than it is to tolerate the unusual. As for Larry Wallrich, who had been at the Phoenix Bookshop in New York when it was a centre for poets, he later moved to Toronto and carried on his trade there. Larry was a great friend of Jim Lowell, who opened the Asphodel Bookshop in Cleveland in the 1960s and pushed not only the local poets but also the work of British and American moderns generally. In 1988, the 25th anniversary of Lowell's start in the bookselling trade, a number of American writers, including Robert Creeley, got together to publish a tribute to him, something too few poets do for those who promote their work. But then as a poet once said to me, and without a trace of irony in his voice, "when I'm famous you'll be able to say that you helped me get started." I prefer the Jim Lowells of this world. He still continues in business, though with a mail-order catalogue and, if you can get to his house in rural Ohio, a one-time garage packed with shelves of great books from past and present.

The names continue to roll. Harold Briggs, who ran a bookshop in New York called Books 'n' Things, and had been around since the 1920s, supporting himself in the depths of the Depression by hunting down second-hand books in obscure places, and who was an expert on little magazines, avant-garde presses, and literary criticism. He had himself published poems in magazines and they showed how he had an awareness of what went on in the world and not just in his own head. As his friend Harry Roskolenko, who also appeared in avant-garde and left-wing publications, said much later: "Harold and I hated every aspect of fascism, in and out of books. Today, using a more contemporary form of rhetoric-in-action, there are poets who salute it, unconsciously, in their mindlessness and malice." When Briggs died, around 1970, an editor named Marvin Malone produced an issue of The Wormwood Review mostly about him, knowing that people like Briggs had made a contribution to literature, not only as poets but as booksellers or whatever. Malone is the kind of editor who does know these things. Another issue of his magazine was devoted to Jon Edgar Webb, a writer, editor, and publisher, who, in the 1960s, brought out The Outsider from New Orleans, labouring with a hand press and producing three issues before he and his equally-dedicated wife, Louise 'Gypsy Lou' Webb had to leave town and move to Arizona, where they published a beautifully-designed double-issue which was largely concerned with the work of Kenneth Patchen. The Webbs also published a book by Charles Bukowski at a time when other publishers didn't want to know about him. They were old-style bohemians with a love of traditional jazz and modernist verse and suffered ill-health, poverty, and other mishaps, while publishing The Outsider. A note in the final issue tells how they pawned everything, apart from the printing press, a table, two chairs, and a bed, to raise money for the magazine. It's a world away from poetry competitions and those poets who calculate everything in terms of how they'll benefit from it.

But I'm moving into a world of little magazine editors and that requires a separate article. In this one I wanted to mention Barry Hall and then talk about a few bookshops, though there have been other printer/publishers whose activities need to be documented. The bookshops, and the people who ran them, are rarely, if ever, remembered, and over the years they've provided me with more pleasure and interest than most other activities. In a world where they are increasingly under threat from indifference, commercial pressures, and changing fashions in taste, they ought to be treasured. Browsing around the shelves, finding something of value (and I don't mean that in a financial sense), and perhaps having a conversation with the bookseller, strikes me as much more satisfying than listening to the self-centred complaints of a poet whose work will probably be forgotten in five years time.