Monday, 12 March 2012

How to find good radical literature in south west London

Generally speaking, in terms of mainstream booksellers only the largest of the largest retail chains like Waterstones are able to come close to satisfying the appetites of those like me who like to keep their political consciousness nice and sharp, and are always looking to deepen their knowledge of radical history.

If you value efficiency above all else then ordering online from somewhere like Amazon is probably best, but if you are turned off by the thought of supporting a deeply exploitative, union-busting corporation, there are still alternatives. In fact, Housmans bookshop maintains an online shop which proudly proclaims itself to be “the ethical alternative to Amazon.” Housmans is one of the UK’s oldest non-sectarian radical booksellers, but other more sectarian variants such as the socialist Bookmarks and anarchist Freedom Press also allow you to order both classics and new releases online. Meanwhile, an anarchist publishing enterprise which spans the Atlantic, with branches in Edinburgh and California, is the worker-run publisher and distributor AK Press.

All of these options are ideal if you are after something brand new, which can be delivered straight to your door. A number of them also continue to maintain shops in real, physical space as well. This is very good for those of us who still enjoy the pleasures of rummaging, making accidental discoveries, and even of engaging real people in real conversation. It means we have somewhere to go to satisfy our eccentric habits. The downside is that this may require a considerable outlay in terms of travel expenses.

In the part of south west London where I live the most consistently good source of local, cheap, second-hand literature is to be found in charity shops, and of these Oxfam has the most consistently interesting books on social, political, philosophical and historical themes, not to mention classic literature. Their store on Old London Road in Kingston-Upon-Thames even caters exclusively to books. Over the years this shop has furnished my house and mind with a number of rare books by anarchist writers including George Woodcock and Colin Ward.

One charity bookstore I have been involved with personally is Fara Books in Teddington, which maintains an impeccably well organized stock, but is largely geared towards children’s books, something which seems quite fitting for a charity set up to aid disadvantaged children in Romania.

The classic old antiquarian bookstore, like the kind my great-grandmother once ran in Glasgow, independent of the charities sector, is rapidly becoming something of a dying breed. For this reason, if you find one it is definitely worth supporting them with every ounce of spare change in your pocket, in order to preserve what is now a unique retail experience. This is especially worthwhile if the shop in question contains stock which is as diverse and fascinating as that which can be found in Anthony C Hall’s on Staines Road, Twickenham.

Hall’s is quite frankly the kind of beautiful old bookstore where you can easily lose yourself between shelves crammed floor to ceiling with what I can only describe as an endlessly fascinating array of old books. Nowhere else in the borough have I found such a wide selection of Tolstoy’s shorter, lesser known writings, mixed in with books about the Italian Marxist Gramsci and the Paris Commune of 1871.

To be able to buy a book about the history of revolutionary socialism in France or insurrectionary anarchism in Italy, then retire to read it over a pint of bitter in one of the pubs nearby... This alone would be worth a trip to Twickenham. To be able to do so in a street mercifully devoid of the ravages of Starbucks only serves to make the experience that much sweeter.

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