July 3, 2013

Independent Booksellers Week: Q&A with Nik Górecki from Housmans Bookshop


Continuing our series of interviews with independent booksellers, in celebration of Independent Booksellers Week, today we interview Nik Górecki from Housmans bookshop. Housmans is London’s oldest radical bookshop and the go-to place for radical books, zines, periodicals and newspapers. There really easy no bookshop or place like it anywhere in the city, or perhaps even in England. The shop’s roots are in the British peace movement, and it is this mission which still drives it today. And that’s probably one of the strongest arguments for independent bookshops there is.


Housmans: radical since before you were born


Tell us about your shop 

Housmans is a long-standing radical bookshop in King’s Cross. It was established in 1946 by a collective of pacifists, which included playwright and activist Lawrence Housman, whose public profile led to his name being chosen to represent the shop. The horrors of the second world war resulted in a profound anti-war sentiment, and in the 40s there was a vibrant peace movement across Britain. The shop’s remit in those early days was solely to make available books that promoted peace and pacifism. Over the years that remit has spread to cater for the full spectrum of left/progressive publishing, but the peace stock remains at the core of the shop’s outlook and ethos.

Housmans is managed by a trust and is run on a not-for-profit basis – volunteers compliment a small and dedicated staff. We all do what we do to help get these important books out there. I think it’s not presumptuous to say that everyone involved with Housmans is primarily motivated by political convictions, but equally by a love of books. I certainly believe that books, and bricks-and-mortar bookshops, remain an important part of both political struggle and also play a vital role in the broader cultural life of our communities.

Why are independent bookshops so important?

The importance of independent shops is increasingly being recognised by state bodies, leading to the French and German governments both implementing financial breaks for indies. They recognise what we all know, that books are too important to leave to the ravages of the “free” market.

Political bookshops have a particular importance. Politics is increasingly seen as taking place away from public life and carried out by professionals behind closed doors. Bookshops like ours bring politics to the heart of the community and anecdotally many people who have gone on to be involved in radical politics had their first contact with radical ideas through shops like ours.

How has your business changed in the past ten years? 

The string of setbacks to the independent book trade is well known: it began with the ripping up of the Net Book Agreement, which meant independents could be undercut on price, and allowed those with the most capital to dominate the trade – which leads nicely on to Amazon. Amazon’s model is to monopolise the book trade (in fact all online trade), and their plan continues unabated. Their end goal is to drive out all competition through aggressive undercutting, and become de facto publisher, distributor and retailer. A third key factor in much of the UK is the cost of rents and business rates. If a big chain like Borders couldn’t make the model work, and even Waterstones without any high street competition is struggling, then clearly the business model for the high-street selling of books is in serious trouble.

Our response has been to dig in and do what we do as best as we can. Most bookshops have diversified their products into non-book items including food and hot drinks. We’ve gone the opposite way and focussed all our efforts on our specialist book stock. Alongside that we’ve established a busy events programme and have had hundreds of speakers through the door – perhaps the most high-profile including names such as the journalist Naomi Klein and London psychogeographer Iain Sinclair. I think a successful indie has to demonstrate knowledge, passion and expertise. But the forces of capitalism are far bigger than any efforts we are capable of, and ultimately our fate is tied to that of the wider economy.  Amazon poses a genuine existential threat to the booktrade at every level, and I think it is time the trade as a whole acknowledged the fact.

You have a page on your website called ‘What is wrong with using Amazon?’ and you have an online shop which you call the ‘ethical alternative to Amazon.’ Do your customers recognise the evils of Amazon, and what do you think should be done to protect independent bookshops?

The list of reasons not to shop with Amazon is a long one (and worth reading on our site), and the recent exposure of their tax evasion is just the latest in a long line of scandalous behaviour by the company. Our customers are increasingly aware of it, and the story is filtering out into the mainstream media, but as long as government bows before corporations nothing will really be done. As to what can be done, re-implementing the Net Book Agreement would be my priority policy for change, and one that could be most easily implemented. Books aren’t charged VAT because they are seen as non-luxury, essential items. This special status of books should be carried into the way the state views bookshops, particularly in regards to business rates. Books have very low profit margins in comparison to many other goods, and I think the social value of bookshops should be reflected in law – particularly at a time when we are seeing so many library closures. Indie bookshops are already an endangered species, and if its left much longer to act it could be too late.

How will you be celebrating Independent Booksellers Week? 

It’s always Independent Booksellers Week at Housmans!

During the week we’ll be kicking off our annual season of events celebrating radical aspects of London’s social history, a season we call ‘London’s Burning’. Independent Booksellers Week is an important event, but Housmans has also been instrumental in setting up a new initiative to help promote the work of specifically ‘radical’ booksellers. In 2011 we helped found the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, which has brought together radical bookshops from around the country. Our activities include the London Radical Bookfair, the inaugural hosting of which took place very successfully in May in a packed Conway Hall, and also facilitating two book prizes, the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing [awarded to Melville House in 2012], and also this year a new children’s prize called The Little Rebels Children’s Book Award for readers under the age of 12.

Zeljka Marosevic is the managing director of Melville House UK.