Detailed history of the Anarchist Bookfair

The Bookfair is now a regular fixture in the anarchist year and is a chance for friends to meet up, renew arguments, share a drink, make new contacts, check out new and old literature, DVDs, CDs etc., attend meetings, see films and generally have a good time. So I would like to thank the Black Flag collective for asking me to write a short, provisional, article on the History of the Anarchist Bookfair. First let me declare my interests; I was not in London when the first bookfair took place at the Autonomy Centre, however I started working at Housmans and was involved with the setting up of the Anarchist Bookfair as we know it.
We now need to cast our minds back to 1984. During this period both personal and professional contacts were made between A Distribution (then a co-operative of publishers set up to provide a joint distribution for both books and periodicals), the Anarchist Book Service, set up to provide a wide selection of titles by mail order for those having difficulty obtaining them through their local bookshop, Freedom Bookshop and Housmans Bookshop. It was obvious to the people involved that by pooling our resources we could be far more effective than working on our own. At this period the major showcase of radical publishing was the Socialist Bookfair. Housmans, Freedom and A distribution had all taken part in this. None of us was particularly impressed either by the structure of the Bookfair or the ambience of it, i.e. as far as we were concerned it was no fun. First not only did we have to pay for the stall, but all the books we sold were invoiced to Bookmarks less a third and there was an entrance charge. The entire stock of books at the fair was in effect on sale or return to Bookmarks. In our joint discussions we discovered that not only were none of us making any money out of the Socialist Bookfair none of us were enjoying the experience and we were attending out of a sense of solidarity with the radical publishing scene. A few quick calculations on the back of the proverbial cigarette pack, distorted by a couple of pints, quickly convinced us that if we pooled what it was costing us to attend the Socialist Bookfair in time and money we could set up a small bookfair dedicated to Anarchist publications and groups and be no worse off than we had been attending the Socialist Bookfair. Starting off small with few overheads we reckoned we could finance the project by a 10% levy on sales. Small is beautiful. The current Bookfair collective have my sympathy trying to juggle the Bookfair nowadays. Right from the beginning we had a different vision to the Socialist Bookfair.
Obviously we wanted to sell books, that’s what the founding groups were all committed to, but we wanted to use the revenue generated to create a space that would be more than just an Anarchist supermarket. With the minimal charge, 10% of sales, we approached numerous Anarchist groups who all enthusiastically signed up to the project. .I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the groups and individuals who have travelled to the Bookfair. It’s easy for me to jump on a bus/tube/walk but I know for a lot of you it’s a long travel and expensive…so thanks. The other main attraction for us was that we could get numerous groups under one roof and people who read regional papers/publications would have the chance of meeting the people behind them and discussing issues with them. One of the banes of working in Housmans/radical Bookshops is having people ranting at you about publications and at the bookfair we could always say there is the group I am sure they will be interested in your critique. We were lucky to be supported at the two Bookfairs at the Tunbridge Club by Crass. Crass not only helped publicize the Bookfairs via their extensive network bit also cooked and provided the food at the Bookfairs which certainly helped the cash flow.
My memories of these Bookfairs are pretty hazy, although it was obvious by the second one held at the Tunbridge Club that we would have to find a larger venue. Apart from organizing the Bookfair the founding groups produced a free magazine called the New Anarchist Review, the first edition being produced before and advertising the 3rd November 1984 Bookfair. Books reviewed /plugged in the first issue included ‘Quiet Rumours’ 72pp pamphlet Published by Dark Star and Rebel Press, ‘Against His-story Against Leviathan‘, Fredy Perlman, Black and Red, ‘At Least Cruise is Clean‘, Niccolo Press, ‘The Guillotine at Work‘, Maximoff, Cienfuegos Press, ‘Why Work’, Freedom Press, ‘Vision on Fire: Emma Goldman on the Spanish Revolution‘, and ‘The Education of Desire; The Anarchist Graphics of Clifford Harper‘.
Did you attend any of these Bookfairs? I can’t even recall who had stalls there apart from the usual suspects (you know who you are). If you remember attending, either as a stall holder or visitor we would be interested in your memories. I seem to recall that the November 84 Bookfair was on at the same time as the Socialist Bookfair , just down the road from the Tunbridge Club, and some over enthusiastic (!!) colleagues spent most of their day leafleting said Bookfair for the Anarchist Bookfair. The food crew (Crass and friends) not only provided cheap and excellent food but also raised over 150 pounds for the miners.
The first Bookfair at the Tunbridge Club having been so successful another was organized six months later on 4th May 1985. As observed above it was obvious that the Tunbridge Club was too small to contain the potential of the Bookfair. The founding groups decided to take the plunge and go all out and book Conway Hall. The large hall was consequently booked at Conway Hall for the Bookfair to take place on Saturday November 9th 1985 from 10am to 10pm. The total hire charge for this was £175.00. Thus began the Anarchist Bookfair residency at Conway Hall which ran from 1985 until 2000 when its continual growth required it to move to larger premises. The founding groups had decided that trying to organize a Bookfair every six months, although probably sustainable, was far too much like hard work!! So it was decided that it would be held yearly.
My memories of the Conway Hall Bookfairs tend to blur together. Certainly I have many happy memories of washing up in the kitchen while Martin cooked the food, serving out coffee and numerous other glorious activities. We always made it a point of principal to assist the caretakers in tiding up at the end of the Bookfair and I am pleased to say that the Anarchist Bookfair and Conway Hall welded well together. In issue 4 of the New Anarchist Review another project of the groups involved in the Anarchist Bookfair was launched. A full page set out the aims and ambitions of Phoenix Press produced by a certain Chairperson M(a)O. As stated in the blurb “people working to set up Phoenix Press are also involved in Britain’s two distribution services for Anarchist literature, A Distribution and Housmans, in London’s two Anarchist Bookshops, Freedom Press and 121, and in Britain’s two mail order services for Anarchist Literature, Freedom Press and the ABS (Anarchist Book Service)”. Also a whole page was dedicated to Spectacular Times:
“Spectacular Times was started on April Fool’s Day in 1979. Its mixture of anarchist and Situationist ideas has led it to being described (or more often condemned) as anarcho-situationism. It is, in fact, antagonistic to all ideologies in its search for a usable and effective revolutionary theory.”
Larry Law who produced Spectacular Times, based in Reading, was a great supporter of the Bookfair and his death at an early age was a blow to us all. We are grateful to A Distribution/Rebel Press for keeping Larry’s work in print.
As can be seen from the above the Bookfair was rooted very much in the practice of its founders, that is selling Books. That is what we all did. However it was also obvious that as long as the book aspect could be used to generate income along with the food and drink, which to begin with was being provided by the organisers, the Bookfair had the potential to be far more than just buying and selling.
One of the advantages of moving to Conway Hall was there was room to expand the Bookfair by hiring more rooms for discussions, group meetings etc. Once again I cannot remember the exact date when we started this, however in the New Anarchist Review dated July 1990 the following is stated:
“Anarchist Bookfair 1990
Join us at Conway Hall on Saturday 20th October 1990 from 10am-8pm.There will be videos, meetings, food a crèche and masses of books... The small hall will be available as last year…Help with publicity needed urgently NOW. Fly posters particularly wanted”.
The same issue announced that taking inspiration from the New Anarchist Review, American comrades had set up their own project the ‘North American Review‘. It also noted that A Distribution was celebrating 10 Years of Anarchist Distribution:
“ten years on, and we’re still operating on volunteer labour, borrowed space and generally on a shoestring”. I guess some aspects of the Anarchist movement have not changed much.
So within a period of seven years the Bookfair had moved from a purely book oriented affair and had started to take on the shape that it has now. Food, drink, crèche, formal and informal discussions, a space where you could stay all day. The growth of meetings, the social space provided by the Bookfair was pivotal to its growth. In the early years the founding groups were acutely aware that the Bookfair only format had its disadvantages.
We were particularly aware that some individuals/newcomers/interested visitors could feel slightly isolated at some of the earlier Bookfairs. Understandably there was a danger of cliques forming, friends chatting, which unintentionally could deter new people from engaging fully. With the meetings, the food and drink, we made the most of these aspects to try to make newcomers particularly welcome, try to introduce them to people. Obviously as people selling books we were not averse to them going home with bags of our books but more importantly we wanted them to make contacts with groups/individuals who shared their interests and most importantly that they went away thinking that was a really good, interesting day and that they will definitely return and bring some friends next year. After a few bumpy starts the Anarchist movement as a whole got behind the Bookfair realizing that here was a great public platform for Anarchism to counteract the media distortions and to show mutual aid in practice. Anarchism became, for one day at least, more than ego driven schisms, petty squabbling, rows, point scoring that was completely lost on interested visitors (well, OK, this took place in the pubs nearby). So to all of the groups/individuals past and present who have helped create this atmosphere…keep up the good work.
Freedom Press, Rebel Press, Cienfuegos Press, Direct Action Movement, Dark Star, Black Flag,121 Bookshop, Class War, Peace News, San Fairy An, Old Hammond Press, BM Blob, Elephant Editions, Insurrection, Phoenix Press, Chronos Publications, Spectacular Times, Canary Press, Crass, Virus, Drowned Rat, Bash ‘em Books, Solidarity, Advisory Service for Squatters, Thames Valley Anarchists, BM Combustion, Hooligan Press, Refract, Anarchist Black Cross, ACF, Libertarian Education.

The above is just a sample of publishers which I pulled out of the first eight issues of the New Anarchist Review (up to Issue 8 dated, July 1986).Some of these groups are still with us, some have ceased or re-emerged under other names. Canary Press was set up to produce books about and supports the Miners Strike and having fulfilled its remit dissolved itself, although most of the participants are still active today.
In the Radical Bookseller July/August 1986 there is an article on the Anarchist Bookfair and I will extract a brief description of a couple of publishers you may not remember:
Drowned Rat
Box 010
c/o Full Marks
Bristol 6
The Drowned Rat Collective was started in 1978. They have reprinted various titles originally produced by Cienfuegos Press, including ‘A Woman Without a Country‘, ‘Three Essays on Anarchism‘, ‘An Anti-Statist Communist Manifesto’ and ‘Towards a Fresh Revolution‘.
Solidarity (London) is now over twenty five years old, making it one of the longest surviving libertarian socialist groups. Over the years they have published an extensive range of pamphlets about the Russian Revolution, the nature of socialism, workers struggles, and other topics as well as producing the magazine solidarity. Solidarity’s views are essentially councilist rather than anarcho-syndicalism.
I have to mention the Hooligan Press Crew
Hooligan Press has been set up as a non profit making enterprise. Apart from the book ‘The Free‘, which is already in print, within the next five months they intend to produce a Pirate Radio Handbook, an updated version of the forensic manual ‘Without a Trace‘, an anarchist comic book, a new version of ‘Steal This Book‘, several posters, and they are also involved in producing yet another book about the miners’ strike, and a book on alternative housing.
I personally have very fond memories of their claim that they were going to publish a ‘Spycatcher’ spoof or wind-up.

At the height of its activity in 1988 the New Anarchist Review was distributing 2000 copies four times a year to radical bookshops (remember them?) and individuals.
The more I reflect on the Bookfair the more conscious I am of how vague my memory is.
Can you remember the Bookfair that was disrupted by a bomb scare? Where you one of the people asked to patrol the environs of Conway Hall when there was a rumour that the Bookfair was going to be attacked by the Fascists? If so we would like to hear from you.
Consequently I see this article merely as the first rough draft at compiling a history of the Bookfair. However, the Bookfair is an ongoing process which over the years has been shaped by many groups and individuals and consequently I am asking the current Bookfair collective to add their memories and future plans for the Bookfair.

The New Collective
I got involved in the Anarchist Bookfair in 1999. At this time Dean from AK Press, Martin & Carol Peacock and Clifford Harper were the main stay of the collective. I was asked if I wanted to get involved as they wanted to expand the collective slightly. Then as now, the remit of the collective has been to stay small – after all, all we are doing is administering an event. The stall holders and groups doing meetings are doing the main work. Also, we would rather the rest of the movement did what they are doing, rather than we all stop and just organise a day in the life of anarchist activities. Since 1999 the collective has undergone many member changes and now neither Cliff, Martin, carol or dean are involved - all have moved onto other projects.

When I got involved, there was definitely a move to expand the bookfair, make it more organised and bring the meetings into a more prominent part of the day. There was (and has again) been talk of making it two days, but we have resisted this for organisational reasons, although we continually try to get other anarchists to organise events on the Friday evening and Sunday daytime.

One of the first things we did was to start talking about moving the bookfair away from Conway Hall. Lovely as the venue is, it was becoming far too small for our needs, with stalls in every nook and cranny and meetings held wherever we could fit 1 person and a dog in. For anybody with the slightest disability it was a nightmare. There was resistance to this both inside the collective and amongst the wider anarchist movement. A lot of people seemed to want to keep it as a cosy event where we all knew each other. Eventually the heretics like me won and we moved the bookfair to the Camden Centre on Euston Road.

Before talking about the move, there were a number of other things we wanted to improve about the bookfair. Having gone to the bookfair from the late 80’s it was clear there was a lot of infighting amongst anarchist groups (anybody over 30 will remember these all too vividly and I am not going into them here). We had loads of groups asking not to be near this group or that. We really wanted to stop this bickering and infighting and make the event far more pleasant. Personally speaking I think a number of old anarchos dropping out the movement and also the Bradford conference in 1999. We also wanted to make anarchist politics accessible to a wider audience and so tried to get in speakers who weren’t the typical speakers you would expect and would draw in non-anarchos to the event. This also meant trying to move the day away from just the pissed punk with a dog on a string. As a fellow crusty, there is still obviously a place for punks at the event – although we have said that dogs will be need to left outside the building. With us all getting older and having kids we started to realise just how scary the crèche was. It was run on voluntary labour and people put their names down on the day and I still remember around 1995/6 taking my son into the crèche room onto to find the child minder for that hour was a punk with his dog in the crèche and a can of Stella in his hand. Also, half the rota hadn’t been filled in. A number of people (John McArthur comes to mind as one) saved the day by doing hours looking after the kids, but a number of us parents were still very uneasy about leaving our kids there.

Anyway, we finally, in 2001, decided to move to a bigger venue and eventually chose the Camden Centre. We could use our own caterers (Veggies in Nottingham) and run our own bar, which was definitely a deciding point for us as it meant money from the food and drink subsidised the amount we asked stall holders for their pitches. One problem with the Camden Centre was that they didn’t have enough meetings rooms, so the meetings were held further up the Euston Road at Friends Meeting House. A further problem was that the venue insisted on us having a load of stewards who needed to be recognisable and walk around with walkie talkies. The two years at the Camden Centre were definitely eventful. Arguments with the venue that our “stewards” were not good enough; a car driving through us lot sitting outside the venue and the driver nearly being lynched; a bomb scare with fake bombs left at the building; one of our safety stewards jumping on one of the suspect packages claiming “it ain’t a f**king bomb” – you should have seen the blood drain from the coppers face who was “protecting” the public from the suspect package.; and of course the excellent Chumbawamba and Gertrude gig. We thought it was time to move again.

Looking for venues that had everything we wanted was tiring work especially when they realise what the event is. Finally we found the University of London Union. Being a student union run building we thought they would be more relaxed than the Camden Centre – how wrong we were. We knew they wouldn’t let us run our own bar or food and that meant a reduction in funds (as is the case at every venue since). We didn’t realise just how much of a pain in the arse they were to be though. We were not allowed to take in any computer/video/type equipment and were told we had to hire theirs (at ridiculous prices) as ours were not tested for health & safety. They even stopped a meeting when they realised we were sneaking in our own equipment instead of paying for theirs. It even got to the stage that we couldn’t hang banners up as we were not “registered” to use a ladder even though the two people putting the thing up were both builders and use ladders every bloody day! Even thought the venue was ideal, after two years it just wasn’t any fun for us organisers and we were homeless again.

The Voluntary Sector Resource Centre on Holloway Road came to our rescue and we had two good years there and hoped to have many more. Unfortunately with Arsenal moving their stadium nearby and cops and Arsenal fans on the Holloway Road every other Saturday the venue said we could have the bookfair there still, but it couldn’t be on a day when Arsenal played at home. Something to do with a big fight between the cops and Anarchists a year or two before, and realising that the two might not go well together on a Saturday afternoon. As dates of matches come out in June and we have to book a venue by the January, it was yet another venue we said good bye to – but at least this time on good terms. So, we have now ended up at Queen Mary’s college on the Mile end Road. Somehow having the bookfair in the east end of London seems like home, with all the past history the east end and anarchism has. Also, we are near both freedom and the London Action Resource Centre so it makes it an obvious place to stay. Staff there are great and the place has lots of rooms, so we can expand as and when we need to.

Every year we do try and improve and build on previous years. Over the last 10 years I have been involved this has gone on it a load of different ways. As a parent, the crèche is still properly run and it is the one thing we pay people to staff. After all, they are there for 10 hours looking after other people’s kids so the rest of us can have a relaxed day and not stress out if a mad ketomine head is doing the rota that hour! Recently, as our kids have got older a number of us have looked at how the bookfair keeps the older kids interested and hopefully interests them in anarchist ideas. A couple of comrades have therefore taken on running an “older kid’s space”. We would welcome ideas and help to make this space better. For the last few years we have a room set aside just for radical and anarchist films and recently we have set aside a space just for anarchist cabaret which always goes down well.

One of the things a number of us back in 1999 wanted to do was make the event much more than just a bookfair. We realised it was, at the time, one of the only places where anarchists from the UK and Ireland (I know maybe a politically incorrect, but easy, term) and further afield come together on a regular basis. So, we really wanted to expand the discussion and workshop side of the bookfair. We also wanted to move away from it being just a place where anarchist meet up every year (although this is hugely important) and make it a place where non-anarchists can find out what we all do, say and believe in, and hopefully pull more people into anarchist groups, organisations, and ways or organising. So, we have made a concerted effort to increase the size and variety of meetings, workshop and discussions – sometimes not to everybody’s liking. We have taken a chance and used well known speakers even when they are not themselves anarchists. Sometimes this has worked, sometimes it hasn’t, but it is a tactic the present collective things worth carrying on with. How else would we have got a mention in the magazine “Saga” (a magazine for the over 50’s with a readership of some 1.2 million) if it hadn’t been for us having Dorothy Rowe speaking.

There are so many stories about the bookfair which could be told, but here is maybe not the place.

To finish I have to look at the bookfair ten years ago compared to today. Personally, I often think the anarchist movement in these isles isn’t growing and we are still too often a small group of people happily living within our own ghetto. But, I read how the bookfair only started in 1984 in one room with a few stall holders. Ten years ago we had something like 50 stall holders and 20 or so meetings. In 2009 we will nearly have 100 stalls and something like 50 meetings and a room dedicated just too political and anarchist films, with an estimated 3,000 people coming through the doors. In the last few years there have been bookfairs in something like 10 others places around us – a number of which are now established. And this is just one small bit of the anarchist movement. Not bad really.

Back to main page for the history of the Anarchist Bookfair