John Dunton


  One of the good things that came out of the turmoil of the 1960s and early- 1970s was the large number of "alternative" bookshops that opened up. You'll know the kind I mean, with their stocks of poetry, left-wing papers, and feminist, gay, and other publications. You could, in the best of them, find all kinds of little magazines and small press books, together with imports from the USA, local ephemera, and all sorts of odds and ends. The shops admittedly varied in quality and some of the smaller ones, started by dreamy hopefuls in the provinces, didn't carry big stocks nor did they always last very long. But they were all part of a healthy movement that meant to get away from the domination of a few big publishers and distributors. And they were, large or small, long-lived or doomed to close within a year or two, a godsend to anyone who wanted to read something not produced by the same old writers and publishers.

The sad news is that many of these shops (the ones that lasted) have now closed, the most recent being Compendium (opened in 1968) in London and Frontline (opened as Grass Roots in 1973) in Manchester. There may be a few other outlets for them in London but I doubt that you can buy an anarchist or Trotskyist magazine in Manchester these days. You may not want to buy either, but that isnít the point. The shops sold more than that and generally tried to provide something the bigger bookshops didn't, namely an "alternative" service. But, say those who shrug complacently when told of another bookshop closure, the concerns that the "alternative* shops represented are now part of the mainstream. And it could be argued that they are, in a sense, the victims of their own success, in that the markets for Beat writing, feminist literature, gay studies, what have you, which they opened up, are now catered for by places like Waterstone's and Border's. It's true that those shops often do have feminist, gay, black and similar sections and that they are superior to the bookshops that existed in the 1960s when it was thought necessary to open up alternatives. Anyone around then will know how difficult it was to obtain anything unusual outside London and one or two major university centres. Still, Waterstone's and Border's may be better than the big bookshops of forty years ago but they have their limitations, and even if they do seem to cater for minority or specialised interests they often do so by only stocking relevant material from largely mainstream publishers. You will find little unusual if you inspect the poetry section of Waterstone's in Manchester (reputed to be one of the best of their shops) and they will not even bother to try to obtain publications from small presses if you enquire about them. "Write direct to the Press," a friend was curtly told when she tried to order a small press poetry book. And though you may find the New Statesman in Border's you will not be able to pick up a copy of Freedom or Workers' Liberty.

Now I'm not naive and I don't expect big bookshops to be charitable organisations dedicated to serving those of us with tastes that run to the obscure or forgotten or unpopular. The fact that they do sometimes have on their shelves books mat come into one or other of those categories is to their credit, or at least to the credit of an employee with a little imagination. Whether this situation will last is another matter. Accountants are increasingly dominant and there have been recent signs that Waterstone's, in particular, are under pressure to pull back from anything experimental or esoteric and focus instead on what sells quickly and in large quantities. I hope you can see what is happening? It's working in the same way as public transport, where a large company like Stagecoach moves in, drives smaller companies out of business, and then itself cuts back on the services or even pulls out of the routes altogether on the grounds that it's uneconomic to cover them. Border's and Waterstone's put the smaller shops out of business by initially stocking what those shops used to specialise in and then stop stocking it themselves because, they say, it doesn't sell.

The problem is that there isn't an easy answer to all this. At the end of the day bookshops, large or small, need to make a profit or at least break even. And if the market isn't mere for specialised materials then no shops can afford to stock too much of it. I've talked to enough booksellers over the years to know that poetry, for example, sells very little and most poetry magazines will remain on the shelves. The fault would seem to lie with the customers who, even though they claim to be interested in poetry steadfastly refuse to buy magazines or, for that matter, most poetry books. There are thousands of people writing poetry, entering competitions, and trying to get their work published, but not many of them want to lay out a few pounds for a poetry magazine or a slim volume. But that's another story and I don't want to get locked into it here.

Going back to bookshops, it strikes me that what has happened is that the audience for the 'alternative' shops has largely disappeared. As I said at the beginning of this piece, the shops arose out of the turmoil of the I960s,when students were active, there were various movements afoot in the arts, the Left in its infinite varieties seemed to be on the move, and hippies and others offered alternative lifestyles. There was a general feeling that things could be different. You couldn't say the same now and for all its surface turbulence this is essentially a conservative age

Students are at their dullest for years, interested only in getting good degrees and jobs and beyond that, lifestyle, football, and pop music. The Left has almost totally collapsed and it doesn't look like it will ever recover, the arts are mostly concerned with entertainment, and everything is so fragmented that it simply has no meaning. But ifs all now in the mainstream, the argument runs, but it isn't really true. There are more drugs around and sexual behaviour is looser, the pubs are open longer, and more people, willingly or not, don't work nine to five. Not much of a revolution, when you think about it, and what it has actually led to is a dumbed-down morass of self-indulgence. The system hasn't changed and the same old people are still in control.

But complaining In this way is perhaps just another form of self-indulgence, and if the customers are no longer there then there is no reason for "alternative" shops to continue They served their purpose and when the energy and interest ran out they disappeared. Bookshops have always done that, coming and going in response to the level of commitment from their owners and customers. You could argue that they are no different than little magazines and small presses which, with only a few exceptions, continue in existence according to the degree of dedication shown by editors, writers, and readers. So why worry too much? Something else will come along shortly. But not if the parallel I drew with public transport is anything to go by. You can wait for a tong time for a bus that doesn't run anymore and isn't likely to ever again.

It's worth mentioning at this point that it isn't only the 'alternative' shops that have closed. Friends across the country tell me of other sorts of independent bookshops either struggling or closing down. And my own experiences tell me that second-hand bookshops are suffering. I go to a small town where there used to be two and there's now one and that isn't doing too well. I hear of another one in Manchester calling it a day. In Liverpool, where there used to be six or seven within walking distance of Lime Street Station, there are now just three. Is it relevant, too, to add that even in the more commercial field of magazine and newspaper selling there are moves afoot to centralise distribution around a couple of big suppliers and some supermarket chains. The result could be that many small newsagents will be driven out of business. This may not seem too important. The supermarkets may at the moment have a better range of magazines than the local shop can afford to carry, but what of the future when the supermarket has the monopoly and they decide that certain publications just don't sell enough? And it's unlikely that they'll want to be bothered with ordering individual copies.

The commercial market isn't my main concern but it's easy to see that there is generally a move towards a more homogenised culture where only mass market material will be easily available and the rest, if it exists, will be driven to the edges. It will also be a culture where the pleasure provided by a range of bookshops will be reduced. Browsing through a selection of political papers in the 'alternative' shop, getting dusty in a second-hand place, and then having a look at what's available in a big bookshop, could be reduced to hoping that the big bookshop has something more than the latest best-sellers The wonderful elements of chance which made book-shopping a pleasure in the past might not apply in the future. The internet ? Well, yes, ifs useful and it can be remarkably easy to locate books, order them, and have them delivered quickly. But it realty requires you to know what you want in advance. Where is the joy of discovering something that you didn't even know existed? The human spirit shrivels if the sense of exploration and discovery dies I see the Internet as fine for the academic anxious to track down an item so he can finish his book, but what of those of us who simply love the excitement of hunting through shelves of ageing books and finding things that, old as they are, may be new to us? There is something to be said for travelling around and finding things for yourself that sitting at home and tapping enquiries into a machine can never replace.

There are those who will not think that the decline of bookshops, and the consequent impact on literature, is of any importance. Border's and Waterstone's will supply whatever they need. But I expect that readers of little magazines are, or ought to be, more committed to writing that offers something beyond the ordinary and fashionable. And it seems to me that little magazines, for all their problems, are a way of providing us with a system of exchanging ideas and information about the overlooked and the unusual. Isaac Rosenfeld once said of little magazines that they were outlets for "a small but vigorous and very vital, active and conscious group which knew fairly well the sort of thing it stood for even if it had no specific programme and whether or not it had any political allegiance." He also said that one of the characteristics of a conservative age is "the shrinkage of extremes" and he added: "I am used to thinking, because of my upbringing, of the writer standing at one extreme from society; I mean, of course, the serious writer, the conscious writer, the one who regards his writing as an art...I am used to thinking of the writer, then, as a man who stands at a certain extreme, at a certain remove from society. He stands over against the commercial culture, the business enterprise, that whole fantastic make-believe world which some people would like us to believe is the real world. Of course it canít be that for the writer."

Rosenfeldís words from almost fifty years ago still have meaning and his belief in the rote of tittle magazines is just as relevant. In fact, bearing in mind what has been said in this article about the general situation with bookshops, it may be that taking note of him is even more important. You may not have an "alternative" or any kind of independent bookshop near you anymore and you may have to travel to find a secondhand one that's still open. The local Border's or Waterstone's may not be quite as wide-ranging as you once thought. And the Internet perhaps wonít fulfill all your requirements. So, a few little magazines, arriving as and when resources allow, could provide the variety missing elsewhere. And they may also re-assure you that there are still a few other dissidents put there who haven't surrendered to the notion that big publishers and big bookshops, and the massmarkets they imply, can supply everything the imagination needs to keep it alive and alert to the work around it.