Housman’s Bookshop based in Kings Cross, London specialises in a wide array of literature covering progressive politics and radical interest, for instance feminism, black politics and LGBTQIA. In celebration of Independent Bookshop Week, Comma Press’ Publicity Assistant Khadisha Thomas had a chat with Housman’s Bookshop Co-Manager Nik Gorecki about the history of this iconic bookshop.
Q: How did Housmans get started as a bookshop?
A: Housmans opened in 1945 in the aftermath of World War Two. There was a popular anti-war sentiment in the country, with our sister organisation Peace News selling up to 40,000 copies a week during this period. The shop’s reason-for-being was to promote and make available literature of the peace movement; books that sought an end to war and the deeper causes of war.
The shop’s roots actually go back further than that to 1936, to an incarnation of the shop as a mail order service run by the Peace Pledge Union. So yes, the shop is very much born of the radical pacifist tradition. Over the years the range of books that Housmans stocks has broadened to take in a full spectrum of left political positions, whether expressed in fiction, non-fiction, poetry or art, but our ethos remains grounded in the traditions of nonviolent revolution.
Q: Can you share some pinnacle moments in the history of Housmans?
A: Housmans is part of a bigger building at 5 Caledonian Road, which has been home to so many wonderful campaigning groups, broadly reflecting the struggles of any particular time. For example in the 1960s there was a lot of CND and Committee of 100 activism coming out of the building. In the 1970s it became a hive of LGBT activism: the Gay Liberation Front had offices here and the London Lesbian & Gay Switchboard also operated from the basement of the shop. Housmans put up visiting striking miners during the 80s, and so on.
Over the decades the shop itself has certainly had its share of highs and lows, and I’m happy to say that the last decade or so has been a particularly strong period in the shops history – a golden age perhaps. We are reaching more people than ever. Covid has been a painful set back, but we’re hopeful we’ll bounce back soon enough, with your support that is!
Q: What makes Housmans unique?
A: The UK has had many radical bookshops but I think at present we are probably the largest both in terms of physical space and with the widest range of titles. We are also fiercely independent and do our best not to impose too hard a line on what to stock, so as to have an interesting and pluralistic range of titles. We have a huge range of otherwise hard-to-find periodicals, magazines, journals and zines, and a bargain-filled £1 second-hand basement.
Housmans is also run by its workers, the shop pays a London living wage, and all staff receive the same level of pay. Also the shop’s electricity is powered by solar panels on the roof!
Q: Why do you think bookshops are important?
A: I think browsing in a bookshop is in itself a learning experience – especially so in a shop like ours. Coming into contact with the wealth of knowledge and ideas by looking through the titles on our shelves, seeing concepts and ideas sitting side-by-side, is like walking through an immersive map of radical thinking.
We take great care in choosing which books to stock, and I think that’s a big difference between browsing in our shop and browsing online, where a few books are suggested to you by an algorithm. Bookselling is a skilled job, and one in which you are always learning. Buying books in a bookshop run by great booksellers can’t be beaten.
Q: What do you love most about Housmans?
A: For me its the sense of having a place that belongs to the left and is welcoming to all. A customer the other day said Housmans felt more like home to her than her own home, and I know exactly what she meant! The left desperately needs to occupy more physical space in our communities. Bookshops are one way of doing that. I’m very proud to be involved with it.
Shop directly from their website at – Shop – Housmans Bookshop
By Khadisha Thomas