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On the shocking News of New Beacon Books closure

My godson's first visit to New Beacon Books, Saturday 6th November, 2021

The African/Black community woke this morning, Saturday 4th December 2021 to the shocking news of another of our community institutions being forced to close. New Beacon Books (NBB) has served all of us who walked through its doors with, indeed, more than we might otherwise be used to from the commercial, disaffected, high street chain. We've researched some rare books, documentaries and attended numerous educational events there (for me during my years at University of North London/London Metropolitan University); we've taught there, attended book launches, readings, and latterly a short-lived, yet lively cultural market.

The principles that have kept New Beacon Books in operation for so long, might also have seen it close far sooner. Recognising the worth of independence and self-determination, the bookshop never accepted offers by big publishers to sell up or merge, nor did they consider government grants and funding that always come with self-annihilating strings. Instead, in 2017, when it seemed that closure was then an inevitable outcome, due to the financial struggles all such independent entities endure, it sought and received financial support from the community to keep it afloat thus far, albeit also aided through rental subsidy by the owners of the building. That was because there had been a longstanding agreement between the George Padmore Institute (GPI), which owns the building, and New Beacon Books, both borne of the work and legacy of John La Rose, as well as Sarah White. The bookshop came before the GPI, and has been kept afloat for many years by Sarah White – foremost member of both.

Sarah White and Janice Durham, about the time I used to visit the bookshop

When I visited the bookshop during the early 2000s, I didn't know about the intricate relationship between the two institutions. I was always impressed by the kindly, unassuming Sarah White and the passionate Janice Durham. Both were so helpful, and I admired their commitment to the bookshop. Then it was in an antiquated, though still charming, state. Without knowing how it was doing financially, one thing was clear it was desperately needed. The books and learning materials we sourced there opened us up to the spectrum of Black experience, when our schools and universities wilfully made it appear that contributions by African/Black people were entirely marginal.

Those were the days - 'more than just a bookshop' ran the slogan.

A notable souring between the two institutions took place during and after the campaign in 2017 that raised funds to revamp the bookshop to what it is now. Though the 2020 pandemic also threatened its survival the need for the bookshop was at the same time elevated by the new global version of Black awareness/consciousness through the Black Lives Matter movement. Surely, now is not the time to close this vital institution. I would argue the contrary, that now is time to invest in its survival by whatever means necessary.

Can the GPI seriously continue with the opening statement about its foundation on its website which states: “The GPI was set up in 1991. It grew out of a community of people connected with New Beacon Books, Britain's first publisher, bookshop, and its founder, John La Rose.” It's difficult to read this statement, without the obvious irony, because the motivations for raising the rent, as opposed to seeking an alternative are not clear. And naturally, we await a response by the GPI to the NBB's statement/claims. In any case, there must be another way, unless the claims made by New Beacon Books in the statement on their website this morning about the forced closure are valid: “New Beacon Books would have to reject the increase [in rent proposed by GPI]. The GPI could then reclaim the ground floor of the building from New Beacon Books, and replace New Beacon Books with a tenant paying commercial rent." And moreover, in the same statement we read that: "since 2016, there has been an illogical personal antagonism by some, but not all GPI trustees, to the institution of New Beacon Books." It's one of those absurdities we can only speculate has deeper, behind the scenes motivations. Wisdom is trying to tell us that this is family beef and unless both (all?) sides get to share their perspective, we should just stay the hell out. Yet some countering element, wonders why allow whatever personal issues there might be (overshadowing the financial/logical) to take over in this way? Undoubtedly the GPI knows the worth and value of the bookshop and all the possibilities it has. Or is it a case where the child fails to realise that if they condemn their parent to a retirement home simply because they think them burdensome, that the same fate awaits them in the not-so-distant future? Should the greater good not stand up to the lesser need? Financial struggles are constant, and it's doubtful these will vapour even with this move on the part of the GPI.

One of many book launches at NBB; here Shades of Noir in November 2017

Moreover, what kind of twisted logic is it that an archival organisation should seek to erase its most prodigious legacy? What message will this send to younger people needing to know the importance of legacy, heritage, independence, unity, collaboration, shared leadership, cultural identity, history, about art and the Black experience and especially about community? Thus, the irony of its foundational statement continues: “The [George Padmore] Institute organises and preserves the archival materials in its care to ensure they are available to individuals, researchers, students, schools and anyone interested in the social, economic and cultural history of black British communities.” The bookshop is the Institute’s greatest archive.

It was just under a month that I visited the bookshop with my godson. He had never been to a black owned bookshop before. Of course, he had not! Where are they in London, and UK generally, in any number? I wanted him to choose a book or two for his big (10th) birthday. On our way there on the Victoria line, we saw a poem by Linton Kwesi Johnson about John La Rose, after he had passed in 2006.

This was on the Victoria Line, but a friend recently saw it on the Metropolitan too

After reading this beautiful piece, dear reader, you must first ask yourself, then, perhaps you might be inspired to pose the question to the poet, one of GPI’s trustees: are we to believe that for some impossible pettiness, this grand hope so endearingly scribed is really and truly dead? I have no idea how my godson will receive the news, when one day he should again wish to visit the bookshop. I know all things come to an end but some endings are tragically the result of folly and the inability to appreciate longevity. None of us know the work that goes into keeping hope alive, when the world revolves not on that floodlight but paid bills. I really don’t know what I can honestly tell my godson, if he should ask me why it had to close, when he had only just discovered, then beamed at this new beacon.

Michelle Yaa Asantewa, December 2021

He couldn't wait to start reading his new book, purchased at New Beacon (here at The Park Theatre)


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