News From Nowhere: Inside Liverpool’s iconic radical bookshop

We travel to Liverpool to meet the women behind the city’s renowned radical and community bookshop and find out how it’s become such a vital hub for cultural change and education…

News From Nowhere: Inside Liverpool’s iconic radical bookshop
Words and photos:
Chris Bethell

Flourishing away from the mainstream ideals of the rest of the country, throughout the last century Liverpool has been a hotbed for activism and progressive politics. Over 100 years ago in 1911, Liverpudlians transformed trade unionism in the UK through the general transport strike that involved railway workers, dockers and sailors. This shut down Liverpool's trade; eventually leading to unions establishing themselves en masse for the working class in industries across Britain.

More recently, you might have noticed that it is impossible to buy a copy of The Sun newspaper anywhere in the city, following a front page story that blamed Liverpool football fans for the Hillsborough disaster. It therefore comes as no surprise that this dockland city is also home to one of the UK's longest-running radical bookshops.

Roughly halfway along Liverpool's Bold Street – a liberal (albeit, slightly gentrified) haven of vegan restaurants and independent outlets falling downhill from St Luke's Bombed Out Church – sits News From Nowhere, an all-women's worker's co-op. We paid a visit to the store to find out how it's become such an institution in the city and why it's so important to the community.

Maria Ng

Could you tell us a bit about News From Nowhere. When did it start, and how long as it been here?
"NFN was founded in 1974 and it's been in several different locations around Liverpool. We've been in this building since 1995, slightly before I joined. At the time it was one of the many radical bookshops that sprang up around the UK in the ’60s, ’70s and ’80s as well. Since the early 1980s it's been an all-women workers collective, incorporated as a workers co-op, which means that there's no owner and there's no boss as such. It was deliberately incorporated so the worker members of the co-op share ownership, and that it's non-hierarchical – all of the responsibility for the decision making is done collectively. The bookshop is also ran as a not-for-profit; the workers get their wages but all other money stays in the business. Also, the building we're in right now is owned by the bookshop. So many bookshops have folded over the years, we're really lucky to be in this city centre location on a really great street, and we're not going to be priced out by a landlord."

What's the ethos of the shop? Is there a specific political leaning that you stock the books around?
"We generally classify ourselves as a radical and community bookshop – radical in the sense that it's from the roots, grassroots social justice politics. The shop isn't aligned with any particular movement, but broadly it's left-wing and we sell books around socialism, anarchism, other left-wing politics generally – in the UK and worldwide. Feminism and LGBT books are hugely important to us and essential to us. Anti-racism of course, books on anti-capitalism, the environment – a huge range of issues that come under that broad umbrella.

"We don't sit there discussing and deciding every single book that we order, it tends to be individual judgement. Customer orders are a massive side of our business; the political side of things is an important part of the shop, but we're also a community bookshop so we will sell poetry, fiction, children's books and other things that aren't necessarily political. Unlike Waterstones which is often multi-floored with vast amounts of books, we can only fit a certain amount on the shelves so people will order through us and get to know us as the alternative to Amazon."

Do you find that there's a community that's formed around the bookshop?
"Yeah I think so, and I think we're part of wider communities as well. The really great thing is that we have so many young people in on a Saturday. They buy things like the LGBT badges and stickers – that's just so great to see. Even these small things carry messages about social justice and changing things for the better. It's always been the young people that keep the movements going. Within the activist and left-wing community in Liverpool, we have a lot of connections with people and campaign organisations, political organisations. We have a lot of older people involved in these who will have discovered the shop in their youth."

Why do you think it's so important to have a shop like this in a city like Liverpool?
"I think we thrive partly because we're in Liverpool, because Liverpool is a radical city."

What's kept you working here for so long?
"A big part of it is down to it being a workers co-op. You end up working extremely hard, putting a lot of yourself into it. It's incredibly challenging and you share the responsibility between you and your co-workers. And for the exact same reason, it's hugely rewarding. All the work you put in has a direct impact on the business. I love everything the shop stands for. I'm really fortunate to be able to work for something that is all about that."

Julie Callaghan

How long have you worked here?
"Since the late-’80s – well over 30 years! A long time."

Why did you first get involved?
"To be honest, I worked in a bookshop before here – I went straight from school to a bookshop in Liverpool and when that closed down I came here. It was just an ordinary bookshop, though – it sold stationery and whatnot as well."

What did you like about coming here?
"Firstly that it was a co-operative. I was really curious as to how something could manage without a boss. And the fact that it was a kind of alternative shop; that's what drew me to it, really. Well, that and the fact I was unemployed at the time!"

Did you have an interest in politics or social justice before you started working here?
"Well, I grew up in a working class socialist household. My mum and dad were socialist trade unionists so I think I got my politics from them. And then I wanted to know more about the world when I left school. Over the decades of working here I've learned an awful lot. In fact I feel like it's been a privilege to work here. I've met so many wonderful people; loads of campaigners, it's just been fantastic. Few people can say they love their job but I do."

What are your political leanings now? Are you still a socialist?
"Yes I am. I'm near to retirement age so now I just read for pleasure, and I don't do much campaigning now either. I used to, though – I went to Greenham Common. I don't do so much now because I'm rather tired."

Can you explain the importance of Greenham Common?
"It's the American base where nuclear missiles were held in the late-’70s and ’80s. A group of women started camping there and the word spread like wildfire to get a lot of people campaigning at the base in order to get [the nuclear missiles] out. We didn't want these nuclear weapons on our soil, especially when they're not ours in the first place. I was never a resident there but I went a lot of times."

Were you involved in grassroots political action around Liverpool?
"Yeah I was involved in the Against Clause 28 movement. The government were putting forward this clause that made it illegal for schools to talk about lesbians and gays. We marched against that because we thought young people should know about all kinds of sexualities and genders. The clause was dropped."

Is there still a community that surrounds the shop?
"Yeah, a lot of people see it as a campaigning base. When there was the big anti-Iraq War march years ago we were selling tickets for coaches to go down. It must have been 40, 50 coaches. We sold a lot of tickets. People also tend to gather here before marches. In the basement we host various anarchist groups who have meetings there."

Mandy Vere

How long have you worked here?
"Since 1976 and until last year – all of my working life, basically."

How did you first get involved?
"The shop was ran by a guy called Bob, who started it in 1974 at a tiny little place on Manchester Street. I got to know Bob from just going in and helping out. I'd always loved books, I'd always been involved in various alternative projects across Liverpool, so I loved the bookshop. In the early-’80s Bob left and we became a women's co-op. Growing up in the ’60s and ’70s, the career options for a woman were that you could be a nurse, or an air hostess, or a teacher if you were very clever. But nobody mentioned being a bookseller, it wasn't a thing for women then. I knew about being a librarian, and I was interested in that. But when I found [News From Nowhere] I realised that this is what I always wanted to do. I was brought up by Quakers so I have that background of Quakerism and social justice – my parents were Labour Party people in Stockport, so I'd come to Liverpool for university and then dropped out in 1974. I just fell into this really and fell in love with it.

"Throughout the ’80s we were based in [the Whitechapel area of Liverpool] in a much bigger – but very dilapidated – shop before it all got redeveloped, we were there from ’77 to ’89. During that time there was the miners' strike, there was the Falklands war, there was the Toxteth uprisings. Loads of racism, loads of Thatcherism. It was throughout the ’80s, wasn't it? We were very involved in supporting projects and campaigns – collecting for the miners and supporting the anti-war movement. We've always supported every anti-war movement – from the British and Ireland through to the Falklands War and the Iraq War.

"There was a period then when radical bookshops throughout the country were getting attacked – black bookshops too – by fascists and the far-right. Obviously they saw that we were effective in disseminating information about what was going on in the world. That's the good side; that we were obviously doing something right. The bad side of it was that for some reason News From Nowhere got it particularly bad. We had a sustained period over 10 years when there were waves of arson attacks."

How important a symbol is this place for progressive politics in Liverpool?
"As you say, it's a material base and also a symbolic base. The material base is that we stock brilliant books, the collection you see here has been curated over many, many years. There are books that have been here for a long time! But this means people can discover things they didn't know existed. We stock books that are long out of print, books from almost every country under the sun, and books on all sorts of liberation movements – whether it's national liberation struggles in Africa, or lesbian or gay struggles, or disability rights. Obviously feminism and anti-racism too. I think people love the range of books we stock.

"The fact that we have a physical building is really significant because people have projects and campaigns, but would have nowhere to go to otherwise. They can immerse themselves and meet other people. Over the years we've had loads of author events and different projects have started here. We've had a lesbian mothers group, we've had a working class women writers group, we've had a survivors of sexual violence group… We've hosted local neighbourhood campaigns against rapacious landlords, the local HIV and AIDS support group. We have a window on a high street that lots of campaigns use for their advertising. Currently there's The Writing On The Wall literary festival, which we do all the book stands for. There's something symbolic about something being this long-lasting. Something that is so committed to social justice politics."

What kept you here for so many years?
"I've got to the point where I think as much as I've loved the job all my life, and I love being a bookseller, and I love supporting literature, and recommending books – when someone comes in and says, 'My granddaughter has just got interested in feminism, could you recommend something', I love that – but I'm 66 now and I had got to the point where physically I was just a bit weary from lumping boxes around! And mentally just a bit weary of problems and responsibility. I have so much admiration for them as they work so hard. It can look very calm when you come in, we're just sat there doing the odd thing, but under the surface there is massive paddling going on! I think it has become an iconic place. There's nothing quite like it in the country."

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