Jottings of an anarchist book-freak

IssueOctober - November 2023
Dennis Gould and stall in Stroud, 26 March 2022. PHOTO: STEVE P HURRELL VIA BLIPFOTO

After many decades of selling Peace News (and a few books) on his street stall in Stroud, Gloucestershire, notorious poet-activist-letterpress-printer-footballer Dennis Gould is hanging up his boots/books. To mark the occasion, we’re reprinting most of an article Dennis wrote for PN in December 1973 (PN 1953) based on his experience of running ‘Books and Things’, a bookshop in Cornwall.

George Orwell wrote a classic article on ‘Bookshop Memories’. Descriptions of those frequenting a secondhand bookshop and the depressing nature of being a bookseller.

However there are compensations if you are running your own shop. You at least can decide whether to let some rich, grabbing dealer buy the most beautiful and rare books – that is, you put such a ridiculous price on the book that only a fool or a madman would buy it.

Also you have a lot of anarchist literature and political magazines and posters around the bookshop. This effectively puts off the person only interested in ‘nice’ old books and makes for just those seriously interested in books and ideas walking through the door.

Of course, outside along the pavement, you have boxes of cheap books so that everyone can browse if they wish. Then you make no attempt to conceal your ideas and you use the shopdoor as a noticeboard; you encourage people to come in for information on squatting, SS [unemployment benefits/Social Security], rent tribunals, civil liberties, and use the shop as a meeting place.

If there is no coffee-house or café next door, you also run one since many people will call in a café who won’t call in a bookshop for information.

I hate selling books but I love buying them. I hate the sad sight of lonely old men seeking in vain for ‘Danish magazines’ and only finding Race Today or Spare Rib.

I hate the triviality of our education system and our society which leads people to believe that ‘books’ are ‘a grind’, a tedious duty, a laugh, a collection of sexy magazines.

Of course books can be all these things and yet they should also be connected, possibly, with ideas and visions and personal experiences.

As a child, I remember only my grandfather’s few books, mostly adventures, often with money stuffed between them as, after losing a leg in a shunting accident on the Burton-on-Trent sidings, he became a bookie in his front parlour....

I think I grew up to be a book-freak because as a kid I was lonely. Then I read just about anything I could lay my hands on, though it was long after my military service that I began to take a serious look inside books by people like Tolstoy, Gandhi, DH Lawrence, Orwell, Thoreau and Kropotkin.

It was by chance that I discovered Peace News whilst working in an IVS workcamp (International Voluntary Service).

Then I first met these peculiar people who actually believed in the ideas they spoke about – war resisters, conscientious objectors, weird and wonderful individuals who led their own lives more independently than most, fought hard by their own means and were not at all passive, if at times rather too pious and puritan.

Now we are too blasphemous, too erotic, too sensual, too honest I often think to be taken seriously by respectable people... but who wants them? Indeed, ‘the middle clarse hath a great big fat arse.’

Books are often escapist and pure entertainment, and even when we publish anarchist and nonviolent revolutionary stuff they are quite likely to be seen by the unaware, apolitical English to be funny or irrelevant, since people tend to equate politics with parliament and things far removed from everyday issues.

Here the bookseller with a belief in books has to help educate [her or] his community – not inside institutions but inside the heads of individuals sufficiently interested to want to know why such a bookshop? Why such ideas? Why such a style of life? Why an effort to reach out to the locality with poetry and pamphlets when society is not overconcerned or bothered about such seemingly irrelevant acts and visions?

Many political people are just as guilty of considering poetry as a fringe activity – though it may well be sometimes – but it is also true, as Henry Miller says....

If you get a reading urge and have missed books like Paul Oliver’s classic The Story of the Blues or The Whole Earth Catalogue, or Scaduto’s Bob Dylan, try and get them even if it means spending the housekeeping, junketing your Social Security cash, robbing the gas meter or flushing out the electric money....

[I]f you really want to combat the military information fed weekly into schools, send for copies of Peace News, send for the Concord Film Catalogue [now], send for a ‘sale or return’ bookstall from Housmans Bookshop. There is no excuse for ignorance. There is no price too high in order to get people not to join armies, to set their minds on voluntary service or personal resistance or public propaganda in order, a little, to counter military advertisements.