“People do not know how dangerous lovesongs can be, the auric egg of Russell warned occultly. The movements which work revolutions in the world are born out of the dreams and visions in a peasant’s heart on the hillside.”
– James Joyce, Ulysses
I walk past this bookshop almost every day, but until yesterday had never gone in. I’d occasionally flick through the £1 secondhand books in the cart outside, but always figured I’d get around to actually going in some other day. Yesterday I finally did and wished I had been going there all along. Housmans is a quiet little bookshop with wooden floors, crammed shelves and lovely people; just what I like to see.
Housmans calls itself the ‘radical booksellers’ and specialises in communist, socialist, political and economic books, magazines and pamphlets. Now, up until now I’ve tried to remain relatively apolitical on this blog, simply because that’s just not what this is about. However, with such an obviously political bookshop, I think I ought to provide some kind of disclaimer, just to prevent cries of “Propagandist!” I consider myself a politically engaged person and my sympathies invariably fall decidedly left of the centre. I personally don’t subscribe to Marxism or communism, but I find both fascinating and valuable systems of thought and I think they can and should play some role in the way we interpret our society. Housmans, like any good bookshop, is not trying very hard to push an agenda or to convert anyone; they’re just there as a communal space for learning, the dissemination of ideas and knowledge and the appreciation of all kinds of different books. So relax.
Naturally, this bookshop has an incredible selection of books about communism, socialism, economics, politics, culture and society. Many of them are very interesting and they range from generic introductions to different theories and ideology to really nuanced and specific publications. The shop also has lots of books about society more generally and issues of gender, class and race. Something I really enjoy about this bookshop is that there is a mixture of media. Most places I go tend to opt for thick books published by big publishing houses. (That’s not a criticism!) But here, you get those more mainstream publications, but also books by independent publishers, magazines and pamphlets. It’s absolutely always a good idea to expand your normal reading habits by trying new subjects, genres and formats (and by ‘formats’ I do NOT mean Kindles). Not doing this is something that I too am quite guilty of; once you know what you like you just want to read everything like it that’s ever been published, but if you don’t branch out, your reading experience is poorer for it, I believe. Perhaps this is a possible New Year’s Resolution for me!
Another notable aspect of the shop is its huge section of London Writing, ranging from Great Expectations to Hackney, That Rose Red Empire by Iain Sinclair. The shop has a great selection of texts about different regions of London, their histories and their unique struggles. If, like me, you’re interested in the history of London, the different boroughs, the tube lines and the way the city and its diverse communities took the shape they have today, Housmans is a brilliant place to start looking for information.
And finally, the downstairs, where there are hundreds (maybe thousands?) of secondhand books for ridiculously cheap prices. The majority are a quid. Obviously there are some beat-up books down there, but a lot of them are still in decent shape and come from genres like fiction, politics, philosophy and poetry. Score!
I bought a book called Why Your Five Year Old Could Not Have Done That by Susie Hodge, which explains the significance (it is there!) of modern art and of specific pieces. I paid full retail price for it, since it wasn’t secondhand, but I feel okay about that.
Which brings me to one of my favourite things about this bookshop. Not only are they involved with The Booksellers Association’s ‘Keep Books on the High Street’ campaign, they have also set up their own ‘ethical alternative’ to Amazon. As any regular reader of this blog knows, I hate Amazon. However, I realise that I can’t hate by default the idea of ordering books online. While I may feel that it’s less aesthetically appealing than a creaky old bookshop, I recognise that some people are less able to get to a bookshop because of reduced mobility or isolation and many have had to endure the closure of their local independents. Besides, a lot of bookshops actually need that extra revenue to stay afloat. Personally, I always prefer a real bookshop, but I get that there are advantages to buying online. However grudgingly, I admit it. My objections are more to the fact that Amazon is trying to monopolise the market at the expense of independents, promoting laziness and undermining the hard work and talent of publishers and authors with cheap prices and self-publishing, which is also responsible for atrocities like 50 Shades of Grey. However in light of the recent revelations about Amazon UK’s tax dodging (which had me absolutely gleeful, by the way) a lot of people are having second thoughts. Housmans online store claims to be a more ethical alternative and raises some really interesting points about Amazon’s policies and EVERYONE should read it and join in with the boycott!
My visit to Housmans reminded me of one of the most wonderful things about books. Even as someone who isn’t wholly convinced by communism (despite a couple of Marxist Students meetings I went to back in the day), I couldn’t have felt more welcome in this bookshop because, of course, you don’t have to be a radical to be interested in radical ideas. Books, if we open our minds and let them, let us be bigger than ourselves, let us join in with something global, let us leave our own tiny lives behind and experience what it would mean to be somewhere else, be someone else, live some other way. And if we are willing to let them, those experiences can help us become better, more open and understanding people.
For me, a well-behaved, rule-abiding white girl sitting in her purple-walled room in the suburbs, reading Allen Gibsberg’s Howl for the first time let me be a rebel, a dissenter, a philosopher. Reading The Diary of Anne Frank made me know what it felt like to be up against a great force of evil. This is the power that books have; to give us new lives and make us new people, if only for a little while. But if we’re lucky, we might just end up carrying a little bit of that rebel, that fighter along with us even after we turn the final page.