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UK's first Black bookshop hopes crowdfunder will save it from closure

New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, north London, has been hit hard by the pandemic but could be saved thanks to an outpouring of support.

New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park - the first Black bookshop and publisher in the UK. Image: Sam Gelder

A fundraiser has been launched to save the UK’s first Black bookshop from closure after 55 years.

New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, north London, said financial pressures caused by the pandemic, the rise in online shopping and increasing overheads have left it on the brink. But following an outpouring of support on social media there is hope the shop could be saved and even expand its output.

Founded in 1966 by activist John La Rose and his wife Sarah White, New Beacon Books has played a pivotal role in building social movements and promoting Black writers. As well as being the first, it is now thought to be the only remaining independent Black bookshop and publisher in the UK.

In a statement, its directors said if New Beacon is to survive it must do more than “just sell books” and they hope that building on the shop’s rich history of running public education programmes and hosting events will allow it to continue operating.

To do this, it needs urgent funding, and may need to relocate. Actor and poet Francesca Gilbert has worked with the directors to launch a crowdfunder that aims to raise £35,000.

“New Beacon exists as far more than just a bookshop,” Gilbert told The Big Issue. “It is an invaluable institution of Black history that is needed now more than ever. It is a crucial cultural space rich with the affirmation, validation and celebration of Black literature, culture and art that must be preserved.

“From 1966 until the present day, New Beacon Bookshop has fought to platform Black writing that is all too often excluded from mainstream literary discourse. It has been an honour to work with the directors to fundraise and plan for its future development to provide community and educational initiatives.

“As a young mixed race Caribbean woman of colour, I never feel more affirmed and held, than I do when I spend an afternoon at the New Beacon Bookshop surrounded by the work of writers who uplift Black voices and stories.

“It is a second home. A heartbeat. A legacy that we must protect now and in the years to come. Thank you for all the support thus far, and please continue to share our campaign.”

In the statement directors Janice Durham, Professor Gus John and Michael La Rose – John’s son – said: “In order to meet its financial commitments, New Beacon Books must continue to do much more than just sell books. The publishing arm of New Beacon Books has been scaled down considerably, but there are increasing calls for New Beacon Publications to commission and publish work by young creatives and provide a forum for the exchange of ideas and for introducing new and old work to new audiences.

“For New Beacon Books to do this, it must be able to make full use of its existing space, and if necessary, relocate to premises that will allow for the expansion of its publishing and public affairs programmes as well as for bookselling.”

They added: “New Beacon Books is hugely encouraged by the community’s response to its needs and willingness to
donate funds to enable New Beacon Books to survive and grow.”

The shop has been in Stroud Green Road since 1975, after first operating out of La Rose and White’s home.

La Rose, a political campaigner in Trinidad before moving to the UK in 1961, wanted to create a vehicle for artists to produce work about their own culture, history and politics. The couple started out selling books out of bin liners in the streets, but as demand grew they took on the empty shop unit nearby.

As the only outlet for Black literature and one of the only places young Black writers could get their work published, New Beacon soon became a catalyst for groups including the Caribbean Artist Movement and the Black Parents Movement, which campaigned against racist police brutality. It was also at the centre of the Black Education Movement and the Black Supplementary School Movement.

Established Caribbean writers including Mervyn Morris, Sir Wilson Harris, CLR James and John Jacob Thomas all published work through New Beacon Books. The shop has been at the centre of many political and social campaigns over the decades and people from all over the world donated to a campaign to save it from closure four years ago.

John La Rose with schoolchildren at a supplementary school. Image: George Padmore Institute

John La Rose, who died in 2006 aged 78, was instrumental in organising protests following the New Cross house fire in 1981 that killed 13 young Black people.

In 1982, New Beacon Books and its partner organisations founded the annual International Bookfair of Radical Black and Third World Books, at a time when education providers and the general public were struggling to find books and other education resources by Black authors.

La Rose also helped set up the European Action for Racial Equality and Social Justice in the 1990s, bringing together anti-racists and anti-fascists from Belgium, Italy, France and Germany to fight rising fascism.

In 1991, he and his colleagues founded the George Padmore Institute (GPI), a library, archive and educational research centre above New Beacon Books that houses materials relating to the experiences of Caribbean, African and Asian communities in Britain. The GPI is the landlord of New Beacon Books and is not facing closure.

The directors said New Beacon Books will establish a New Beacon Development Fund (NBDF) to oversee the money raised by the crowdfunder, and that it will be comprised mainly of the supporters. Some of the funds will also help the shop with its urgent financial needs.

They also said they may look to find a bigger premises to accommodate publishing, bookselling, writers in residence, public programmes and community events. An event planning and public programmes committee will also be created.

Visit newbeaconbooks.com to see the statement in full.

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