A postcard from the mecca of black literature

3 Mins read

How has the UK’s first independent black publishing house and bookshop been influential to the black community?

As I push open the glass door to a quaint shop in Finsbury Park, I hear the jingle of a wind chime and am immediately welcomed by the musky yet woody aroma of inked paper.

Here, at the nexus of black literature, the walls are lined with countless books written exclusively by black authors illuminating the histories and rich culture of black communities.

John La Rose, who was a Caribbean immigrant in the UK, established New Beacon Books in 1966, making it the first black publisher and bookstore in the UK alongside his partner Sarah White.

He founded the store because he saw how colonial governments in the Caribbean withheld information and wanted black people in the UK to fully understand politics. He also saw substantiative cultural leaching from generation to generation and wanted to preserve black culture in writing.

Man standing in his bookshop
Michael La Rose, Director of New Beacon Books and son of the founder. [Miette Dsouza]

“Having a bookstore with only black literature is necessary in this age where people only get their information from ten-minute videos. Books always have more information and analyse issues deeper and that’s what we need more of,” says Michael La Rose, Director of New Beacon Books and son of the founder.

As Michael mentally flips through the early chapters of New Beacon’s existence, he recollects how they started the Black Education and Black Parents movements to uplift the black community.

“One of our earliest campaigns in the 70s was against Educationally Sub-normal Schools (ESN) that black children were wrongly sent to as they were perceived as less intelligent,” adds Michael.

New Beacon even published the campaigning book, How the W.I. Child is Made Educationally Sub-normal in the British School System.

“With concerned Black parentsIn 1969, and anti-racist teachers, we started supplementary schools (George Padmore Supplementary School) where we educated students on black history and culture which wasn’t being taught,” he says.

The small bookshop was a base for action after their successful campaigns to stop and expose police brutality against black people. New Beacon was also ground zero for the committee for the New Cross Fire Action campaign in 1981. John was elected as chair of the New Cross Massacre Action Committee (NCMAC) which organised the “Black People’s Day of Action” where 20,000 people marched over a period of eight hours through London to protest the suspected firebombing incident which killed 13 young black people at a 16th birthday party.

As the mellow beats of reggae tunes float through the store, Michael says that New Beacon popularised black literature as they organized the International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books from 1992-1995 in Glasgow, Manchester, Bradford, Leeds, and London.

“Black authors, still have a problem with getting exposure. But as an experienced publishing house, we can help. We encourage people to open their own publishing companies and support them with advice and experience. We spotlight them in the bookshop and on our website and also help them connect with the Black Agents and Editors Group and the Black Writers Guild,” adds Michael.

In 2016, the independent bookshop was almost forced to close its doors. It was no match for Amazon and Kindle’s vast catalogues as more people now order books online. With fewer people visiting the shop, their income and future was at stake. However, they crowdfunded and refurbished the bookshop with volunteers.

Whilst the bookshop survived for a while it struggled to stay open during Covid-19 and the lockdown. Later that year, New Beacon’s landlord threatened to raise their rent and they announced that they were going to close the bookshop and go online. However, the community came to their rescue and crowdfunded £85,000 in just five days.

“It was an incredible response, especially from the black community, and it showed us the importance of New Beacon,” says Michael.

“It was vindication of the 56 years we have been open and has helped us continue our legacy.”

New Beacon Books can be found at 76 Stroud Green Rd, Finsbury Park, London N4 3EN.

Featured image by Miette Dsouza.

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