London’s first black bookshop under threat from closure

London’s groundbreaking first black bookshop could close after 50 years unless it finds a significant cash injection.

New Beacon Books, which opened in Finsbury Park in 1966 and once held literary salons with some of the world’s most famous black writers, poets and activists including C.L.R James, Stokely Carmichael and Linton Kwesi Johnson, now survives on donations and crowdfunding campaigns by fans and admirers.

Established as a publishing house by Trinidadian author John La Rose, the shop moved to its premises on Stroud Green Road in the mid-70s and flourished with local support. But the advent of the online retail boom has had a serious impact on all independent booksellers.

Vanessa La Rose, who is married to the grandson of New Beacon’s founder says Amazon has destroyed the business, but she is determined to fight to keep its doors open.

“New Beacon was started for the community and it can only be sustained by the community,” she said.

Vanessa La Rose is looking to completely rebrand the shop to save it from closure. Image: Flickr/Kake
Vanessa La Rose is looking to completely rebrand the shop to save it from closure. Image: Flickr/Kake

A fundraising campaign launched last week to transform the shop into a modern enterprise to survive in the competitive culture industry. It called on Islington residents to help in any way they can.

La Rose aims to give the shop a contemporary makeover and utilise digital technology to give the shop the essential online presence it needs.

“I thought ‘let’s reach out and share the struggle’,” she says. Once we did that and saw the response we were quite overwhelmed.”

“We’ve seen members of the community come through and volunteer by painting the shop and offering to create a website. We’ve had people offer to help from Brighton, Manchester and Kent, so the GoFundMe page gives them the chance to do that.”

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In December, La Rose announced to The Bookseller magazine that the shop would close temporarily while it had a rethink.

“The world of books and publishing have changed enormously since 1966,” she told them. “And it is unrealistic to continue operating in the same old way. In 2017, New Beacon will be undertaking a reorganisation so its traditions and vision can continue into the future though not necessarily within the same structures.”

After closing for a period of reflection, the shop is back operating with reduced hours. Fans of black British, Caribbean, African and Asian literature can visit the shop in the afternoons from Wednesday to Saturday.

Alongside contemporary authors like Jamaican Booker-prize winner Marlon James, Guyanese writer Gaiutri Badahur and St Lucian winner of Trinidad’s Bocas Lit Fest prize Vladimir Lucien, readers will find classic works of fiction and non-fiction by Andrew Salkey, Stuart Hall, Wole Soyinka and Buchi Emecheta.

Starting out as a publisher, providing a platform for black intellectuals, New Beacon’s heyday coincided with a shift towards radical politics and activism among London’s leftfield community groups.

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As black activism waned through the 90s as far right racism became less prominent in London society, the company moved primarily into selling literature. But with an average 60 bookshops closing each year, and the total number of bookshops falling below 1,000 for the first time in 2014, New Beacon is desperate not to become another casualty.

“We’re looking to completely rebrand and rejuvenate the shop to tackle its potential closure,” says La Rose.

“This used to be a community hub – it was an iconic establishment and still needs the help of the community. “We’re hoping to create a DIY SOS. We want to reach out to the community to makeover the shop. We don’t have the funds so we’re relying on the support of neighbours and normal people.”

After celebrating its 50th anniversary last year, the future remains uncertain for this iconic establishment.