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Richard Cupidi (left), Peter Orlovsky (middle) and Allen Ginsberg (right) At Public House Bookshop in Brighton

The intrepid bookseller of Brighton

Essay | 11 minute read
In the aftermath of the assault on Bookmarks, the former owner of PHB reflected on the bookshop's radicalism, with guests that included Allen Ginsberg, fending off attacks on his life, but also the simple, exhilarating joy of books

What then?

It was an otherwise unremarkable day, a solitary customer had just left the bookshop. I was reading when they came in but sensed something different – their boots, the ordered pace. When I looked up, there were six of them in military drab spreading through the bookshop, trashing books and upending racks. Then they came for me.

Let’s call them Killer A and Killer B because we didn’t have time for social introductions. Killer A heaved a 30lb fire extinguisher at my head from close range while B tried to pin my arms tight against my body. In pure reflex I managed to bat the flying cylinder away and break B’s grip, accidentally, stabbing him in the neck with a pen still fixed in my hand.

Hearing the commotion, our parting customer returned shouting out threats of ‘police, police’ at the pack. To his great credit, he stood his ground even though bloodless with shock until, at A’s command, the hit squad retreated in a spider scramble down the street. Still in survival mode I grabbed the iron bar kept by our door for ‘repairs’ and ran after the bastards. Images of Keaton and Chaplin played silently in my head.

Maybe growing up rough as an immigrant American helped me fight them off, or perhaps the biology of survival simply kicked in. In any case I felt calm and detached. The previous year, after a fire bomb attack, we had a cash desk built which also functioned as a defensive space. That day its wooden shell protected me.

It had all been so silent, except for the rush of flying paper. I can still see B’s eyes. They weren’t reckless, they had a certain wariness about them, not the eyes of a sociopath or a predator. I wonder sometimes if he wasn’t undercover, more intent on keeping the others at bay than killing me.

Why now?

I’m not attempting to compose a history of the Public House Bookshop, a radical landmark and creative community space that flourished in Brighton for more than twenty-seven years. Let’s call it an impressionistic memoir. Compressing such an era into an article would be unfair and impossible. I simply want to touch on how this particular bookshop mattered, the dialogic process of books, and our continuing need for grounded spaces such as PHB. The immediate catalyst for writing was the recent assault on Bookmarks in London.

Bookmarks isn’t the first bookshop to be attacked in recent decades. PHB was fire-bombed twice, had its windows broken at least seven times, in addition to personal assaults with deadly intent. We were the object of guerrilla warfare – strike with maximum stealth, hit and run invisibly, much like terrorism in the twenty-first century.

However, the assault on Bookmarks differed significantly. It was a performative act in which the perpetrators wanted to be seen right down to the Trump mask. Book-burning (the symbolic public destruction of unauthorised knowledge) has a long pedigree running from Chinese Emperor Qin Shi Huang to the Spanish Inquisition. But it was Hitler and the Nazis who seem to have changed its fundamental nature. They wanted to be known for their book-burnings; they demanded media coverage to establish book-burning as a performative ritual, a ceremonial confirmation of their superiority and their power over life and death. Contemporary fascists share that weakness for spectacle too.

How did we respond? We resisted. We provided self-defence training for everyone who worked in the bookshop. We built defensive spaces, rehearsed protocols in case of attack, we put protective shields over our windows, and we carried on as usual. When a neo-Nazi organisation threatened to attack en masse one weekend, a voluntary clutch of anarchist bus drivers turned up at our doors with their toolkits and camped inside. After that three-day Spartacus moment, most of the major attacks on us ceased.

Locating PHB

You had to undertake a dedicated journey simply to get there. Locating PHB meant searching through some unlovely Brighton backstreets, beyond the usual tourist footfall. ‘We’re hard to find but worth the effort’ was the phrase we’d use to encourage newcomers. Perhaps having to undertake such a pilgrimage contributed to its fascination, making learning by doing and discovery active elements of the place.

Once you found Little Preston Street though, you couldn’t miss the bookshop – a gleaming yellow Victorian public house, encased in salvaged Caterpillar Yellow enamel tractor paint. On the front wall where the brewer’s brand had been, artist Neil Dean painted a Durer-inspired book with a porthole inside for viewing the universe. Directly above the mural was written one of our favourite Public House principles: The book should be a ball of light in your hands.

The building had been derelict for years, swathed in layers of ancient posters, wrapped in barbed wire after a fire, boarded up and abandoned. It was definitely homeless. When I asked the agent about it, he surveyed my long hair and beard and my generally crumpled state and must have thought, ‘What other sort of fool would ever make use of this place?’, before handing me the keys. In some sort of absolution he snaked one pinstriped arm around my shoulders and whispered, ‘Keep them as long as you like, old chap.’ Never having been anyone’s old chap before, I accepted the miracle, took the keys and ran.

We squatted the building within hours, eventually negotiating an uncomplicated long lease. With the help of many volunteers, some sea-scavenged timber, a small pot of cash and much hands-on learning, Public House Bookshop opened its refurbished doors six months later in the summer of 1972. Of course there was a party, a celebration of all the small, incremental miracles that built it. That’s another one of our operating principles, roughly paraphrasing the anarchist and writer, Emma Goldman: ‘If I can’t dance I don’t want to be part of your revolution’.

More than just a bookshop

The PHB was a working collective, or more accurately a working coalition. It was sustained by the people who worked in it, those who used it, those who supported it from a distance and others who could only imagine its communities. At its core were notions of evolving social justice, the dialogic imagination, creativity, joie de vivre and the politics of personal identity.

Good independent bookshops like PHB are congregational spaces, rich in potential encounters and communities. They embody the voices of individual books amplified into coalitions of dialogue; they generate communities of readers, of searchers, Greek choruses of the curious. For many people, going to Public House was an emotional experience as well as a cognitive one – they saw it as an oasis of expectations. For others, PHB was a sanctuary space or the embodiment of resistance.

I often use the term ‘books’ in a metaphorical sense of an amplitude of voices, and the term ‘bookshop’ to mean a grounded social, cultural and media space. To paraphrase another Public House guiding light, Mikhail Bakhtin, books are just dialogues waiting to happen. We should also mention Jacques Derrida here because he emphasised our need to listen to one another’s voices, thereby discovering new ones.

Public House wasn’t just restricted to books. It became a polyphonic circus of voices: independent music, especially free jazz, on vinyl and in performance; small press poetry on the page, recorded and in performance; art, photography and graphics installations, with live events by the artists; storytelling and spoken word events. Instead of identifying Public House as a bookshop, we would often (with only a touch of irony) describe it as a cultural emporium and book takeaway.

The Basement embodied this multiplexity. At various and often overlapping times it served as a performance space, quiet room, rehearsal room, a space for art installations, a cinema and a crèche (we ran a free crèche on Friday mornings so that parents could have relatively adult conversations in peace). After the Natural Health Centre was fire-bombed, the Basement served as a temporary teaching space for massage and shiatsu. And it was often the venue for a few ecstatic PHB birthday celebrations.

As a crucible for learning, PHB encouraged direct, unpredictable dialogues with oneself, texts and other voices. As another teacher-less teacher, Paolo Freire, might say about PHB: Here people teach each other, mediated by the book. Freire actually said ‘by the world’, but ‘book’ sounded more appropriate here. Consider that a fusion of ideas rather than a confusion of texts.

Regulars would often suggest material for the bookshop. The difficult art of choosing which voices to stock was practiced at monthly shop meetings, held in the Basement, accompanied by large bowls of homemade salsa, tortilla chips and enough beer to sustain discussion. Together we would work through publishers’ lists, obscure and otherwise, ordering whatever we liked. Whenever there was doubt, we’d discuss how our choices mattered. Because of the bookshop’s tiny labyrinthine architecture, we had to keep in mind another PHB maxim: Essential books on the essential heresies.

Speaking of praxis, at one meeting someone noticed that of the six shopworkers present, five were lesbians and I was the only nominally heterosexual male. In solidarity, they declared me an honorary lesbian for the evening – an act which I still regard with great fondness.

Many voices

I can’t write about PHB without including some of its congregation, the voices that continuously contributed to its existence. Unfortunately, because we existed pre-digitally, our archives are very thin. We were too busy doing things rather than archiving, so this section is less an archaeology of knowledge and more an excerpt of excerpts.

John Kieffer (early co-founder and musicalist): ‘PHB was my alternative university. It morphed between political hothouse; an informal community centre for marginalised, inspired and eccentric human beings; a venue for poetry and improvised music; and a nappy-changing facility for a whole bunch of Brighton babies.’

Ingrid Kopp (shopworker and digital storytelling champion): ‘Working there was the best education I ever got and books have continued to be balls of light in my hands ever since!’

Harry Whitehead (shopworker and cineaste): ‘I came looking for Canadian First Nations literature, got into conversation with Richard. I related how my first job was at Foyles and I used to steal all the books. Richard offered me a job there and then. Some of the very happiest times in the lowest paid job ever … I’d have paid you!’

Leah Landau (fan and practitioner): ‘Radical literature and politics and intelligent conversation, brilliant recommendations … Public House had an enormous influence on me and many others.’

Stella Starr (arts organiser and daughter of Jeff Keen): ‘Has there been a book written about it? Such an important place in history! I have many fond memories of it as a child – a magical place.’

Miko (student and fan): ‘I loved the Public House Bookshop, as it was one of the few places you could buy gay literature in what felt like a safe environment for a teenager.’

Brian Bates (university lecturer and author): ‘This place shaped my life!’

Allen Ginsberg (poet and Buddhist raconteur): ‘Better than City Lights bookstore.’

David Toop (musician and author): ‘Best muzak anywhere.’

Ingrid and Jenny at the gallery’s opening

Carlyle Reedy (poet and performer): ‘The friendliest, most pleasant refuge for the wanderer poet ever fashioned outside of San Francisco, and a joy of a meeting point.’

Two Chicago anarchists (who would fly in every year and burst through our doors shouting): ‘This is the best bookstore in the world!’

A closed book

The Public House Bookshop persisted in its own idiosyncratic way for more than a quarter of a century. It was a nest for incubation, helping to push marginalised topics like sexual politics, gender relations, cooperative learning and active democracy into the mainstream – for debate if not for complete acceptance. In the end, it wasn’t the neo-Nazis or the inconsolables that closed PHB, it was competition from Amazon. Compendium, London’s finest independent bookshop, ceased trading a few months after us for similar reasons.

Still, we closed our doors with dignity and, of course, a party. We paid off all our outstanding dues, starting with the smallest independents and chose May Day, 1999, as a fitting farewell date. At the last minute, one particularly distraught friend offered us a bagful of cash to carry on but we turned it down. That would have only postponed the inevitable. At our farewell bash we shared salsa, brownies and PHB stories late into that good night.

An open legacy

If Public House Bookshop was reincarnated today it would be crowdfunded. I can imagine harnessing VR to increase accessibility, to help generate distant communities grounded in an actual place. I can also imagine users eventually being able to attach their own multimedia alcoves to PHB, thereby amplifying their voices in a new, more democratic version of ‘La biblioteca de Babel’.

The question remains though: how do you sustain passion, learning and social connections when they are repeatedly calibrated as marketing tools? In these deeply pessimistic times, books and grounded public spaces like PHB matter more than ever.

I will leave you with some quotes from an open letter we published as a parting gift:

For more than twenty-five years the Public House Bookshop has informed, stimulated, irritated, encouraged, inspired, intellectually fed and emotionally watered many people. It moved poets to write about it, Nazis to firebomb it, anarchists to defend it and children to play in it.

To those of you who have never known this place, let’s hope that there will always be environments like this one – fired with passion, creativity, a pleasure in people and in the power of words.

My ultimate invitation: get off your butts, read for power and do something illuminating.

The Public House was always more than just a bookshop.

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