Opinion

When culture warriors attack, independent bookshops offer welcome respite

Robin Ince travels the country for Independent Bookshop Week while a social media storm is brewing in the background

Shopfront of doormouse books

Dormouse Books. Image: Stephanie Limb

Every week is independent bookshop week for me, but there is also an official independent bookshop week for those who need reminding, so I took off to Arnold, Belper and Nottingham for some shop, library and school events. The week began threateningly. On Monday, I woke up to see a former TV detective sidekick proudly, but not always effectively, setting fire to some Pride flags in his back garden. Then, I heard about a friend’s bookshop being stormed and the workers being screamed at for having a Pride window. Other bookshops had stickers placed on their windows declaring that they hated women because they had a Pride window. The fact that all of the bookshops who had incidents like this were run and curated by women didn’t seem to matter. 

In my bleary-eyed morning state of mind, I put up a little TikTok message about those who feel that love, empathy and compassion are dangerous, quoting a line from a biography of Leonora Carrington, “for those living in emotional poverty, other people’s happiness is a threat”. 

I had laid down the kindling, it was then ignited by a former TV sitcom writer and the former TV detective sidekick, who suggested we should have a discussion. 

I continued with my day, my only awareness of the bonfire being built for me was the occasional text from someone saying, “sorry to see what’s going on on social media”. But I just let them roar while I did better things with my time. 

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Dormouse Books in Belper was a beauty among bookshops. It even has a horror dungeon where rickety steps lead you to Tales of Mystery and Imagination and errant werewolves. As usual, the mind of the owner was on display with a rich selection of novels, predominantly by women from Ali Smith to Margaret Atwood, Muriel Spark to Jean Rhys. 

The owner told me that she’d had a man of pinkish tint gruffly enter, look around the shelves hastily, and declare that she didn’t stock any books for “white, middle-aged men”. For some white, middle-aged men, the only books they can read are by white, middle-aged men, for fear that otherwise their minds may become dangerously unbalanced by a previously impossible notion. Seeing Jack Parlett’s Fire Island on the shelves, the cover showing a bare-arsed man handling the buttocks of another jolly man at the seaside, I suggest that if he comes in again she should offer this as a tome of hearty manliness. 

It is a pity that he has decided to turn away from so many stories. 

The next day starts at a school in Nottingham. The first two sessions in the library are jolly, but my final session is with pupils who are resistant to the allure of books. I hack my way through the jolly disdain as they look at me with bemusement. Who is this ancient, bearded man?

I collapse into a plate of biscuits at the end, accepting defeat. Later in the week, the librarian sends me an email saying that one of the most openly resistant pupils snuck into the library unseen and used his card for the first time. 

I am happy to return to Juno Books in Sheffield. I have picked up many interesting books here, including the comic strip adaptation of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropist by the Rickard sisters and an invigorating short collection by Tove Jansson, but the standout was Twelve Reasons Why Jordan Peterson is Wrong About Everything – it contains no text, just 24 pages of pictures of monkeys with their mouths open. Maybe that will suit Dormouse bookshop’s obstreperous customer?

Robin Ince is a comedian, writer and broadcaster.

Bibliomaniac by Robin Ince

His book Bibliomaniac (Atlantic Books, £16.99) is out now. You can buy it from The Big Issue shop on Bookshop.org, which helps to support The Big Issue and independent bookshops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine, which exists to give homeless, long-term unemployed and marginalised people the opportunity to earn an income.

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