Last week I was in the UK on various projects, and on my last day before returning to Buffalo, I went to New Beacon bookstore in Finsbury Park. Originally when I had planned my visit, I thought it would be my last time, as the bookstore was set to close after its 50th anniversary. However, thanks to a populist campaign, the bookstore has raised enough money to revamp itself (see Natasha Onwuemezi’s article in the Bookseller: http://www.thebookseller.com/news/swell-support-new-beacon-books-helps-raise-10k-513551); it plans a new storefront, a different layout, and most importantly, more room and plans for community space and activities. I’m looking forward to going back with some of my postgraduate students in July to see how it is all coming along.
But of course this reprieve did not stop me from a few (ahem) purchases, especially since, in order to make room for new stock, they were selling off some of their old stock at deep discounts. New Beacon is not primarily a children’s bookstore, but they have throughout my relationship with them furnished my shelves with many gems. This is partly because of founder John La Rose’s connection with the supplementary school movement. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Black British children (especially boys) were being placed into ESN (educationally sub-normal) classrooms or excluded from school altogether at an alarming rate. John La Rose, like other activists, tried to counter the effects of this travesty. He did this partly through supporting and publishing educational experts in the Black community, including Bernard Coard and Gus John (and I found a couple of Gus John’s essays at the bookstore this time).
But La Rose was also one of a number of Black British and West Indian activists who began supplementary after- or Saturday school programs, where kids could learn basic skills as well as Black history that the mainstream schools ignored. I have purchased many basic reading texts here over the years that feature Black characters, some from traditional publishers such as Macmillan Caribbean or the Evans English Readers, who had branches in Africa or the Caribbean. These readers were imported specifically by many supplementary and mainstream schools who wanted to be sure that their children found mirrors that reflected them in the books they read. The one I found this time (above) is from Sierra Leone; the illustrator is Tom Simpasa.
Other reading texts came from independent and community publishers, such as Centreprise, the Peckham Publishing Project, or the one I found this time from a group called Brockwell Books. Often these books were “home-made” in quality, created by teachers or even by the students themselves. These are not the kinds of books that are found in mainstream bookstores, or even in places like the British Library—their fragile nature means that few exist anymore, making New Beacon a critical resource. I also found a book of poetry, written by a 14-year-old British Bangladeshi girl, Faryal Mirza, and published in 1987 to an unusually high standard for a self-published book. It still has its original dust jacket, with the photograph of Mirza looking seriously out of glasses she probably would prefer to forget now.
At New Beacon I’ve also found Black history, both older works published by New Beacon, such as Roxy Harris’s Being Black (complete with study questions and vocabulary), and more recent works of the kind that too quickly go out of print. This is one of the key features of an independent bookstore like New Beacon—books that either never reach the mainstream chains or are only available for a few months are much easier to obtain at an independent bookstore. Clive Gifford’s The Empire Windrush (Colllins Big Cat: 2014), Errol Lloyd’s Celebrating Black History (Oxford Reading Tree 2007) and Dan Lyndon’s Resistance and Abolition (Franklin Watts 2014) are all still available, but have you ever seen them in a bookshop? I found all three on Saturday.
New Beacon also had books that preserve and teach history in other ways. For example, I bought one of photographer Joan Solomon’s beautiful multicultural books from her The Way We Live series, first published in the 1980s. Sweet-Tooth Sunil is a story of a British family celebrating Diwali; other books in the series include Sikh, Jewish, Caribbean, Chinese, and Japanese families.
And finally, I bought books that I’ve been meaning to pick up for some time, before they disappear completely (and other than used book sites, New Beacon is the only place I’ve ever seen them). The independent publisher Verna Wilkins produced a series at Tamarind around the turn of this century called “Black Profiles” that showcased Black Britons who had achieved success in their fields despite any setbacks they may have encountered. These books were meant to inspire young Black Britons to do the same, and the books covered a wide range of people. When Tamarind became a subsidiary of Penguin Random House, the Black Profiles series was revamped, changed from a hardcover series with watercolor illustrations designed for the library market to a trade paperback series for the general market, with cover photographs instead of illustrations. The PRH version was perhaps more appealing to the young reader, but one of the editorial decisions made about the revamped series was to change the name, from Black Profiles to Black Stars. This new name made a subtle allusion to Black History, but it also meant that successful figures like the surgeon Samantha Tross disappeared from the series. New Beacon had both for sale.
I’m delighted that New Beacon will remain open, even if the changes they make may mean I won’t find quite so many older treasures. It will nonetheless remain one of the few places in Britain where you can find children’s books for and about BAME people in every imaginable category and by every kind of writer. And that is something that everyone in Britain (and outside it) should celebrate.