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New Beacon Books – UK’s first black bookshop saved after crowdfunder smashes £10k target

PUBLISHED: 11:05 28 March 2017 | UPDATED: 11:50 28 March 2017

Renaldo and Vanessa La Rose at New Beacon Books N4

Renaldo and Vanessa La Rose at New Beacon Books N4

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Thousands of pounds have been donated to save New Beacon Books from closure. The Gazette looks at the history of the iconic Finsbury Park shop.

"This is not simply a bookshop. It was a catalyst for many events in the UK, political movements and groups that came out of them"

Vanessa La Rose

The UK’s first ever black bookshop has seen off the threat of closure after raising more than £10,000 for major improvements to its Stroud Green Road home.

New Beacon Books single-handedly created a platform for African-Caribbean literature when it opened its doors in 1966.

But as its half-century approached last year, Sarah White – who founded the shop with her late husband John La Rose – thought it might be time to call it a day.

The shop was becoming a victim of the digital age. It didn’t have a website, the systems were old and anyone wanting to access specialist literature was now able to find whatever they wanted at the click of a button.

Renaldo and Vanessa La Rose at New Beacon Books N4Renaldo and Vanessa La Rose at New Beacon Books N4

It was only after a family meeting that John’s grandson Renaldo La Rose and his wife Vanessa decided to give it one last shot.

“Over the last 10 to 15 years society has changed,” Vanessa told the Gazette. “Everyone’s stuck on the internet or has their face in their phones. People can get their books on Amazon. The shop had started to decline.

“But we decided we hadn’t done enough to see that people weren’t interested anymore, to see if they cared. We said: ‘Let’s make one last attempt’.”

So Vanessa and the rest of the staff began to increase the shop’s profile and launched a crowdfunder to pay for repairs, a bigger kids’ section, a new shop front and a website to sell their books.

The late John La Rose (centre) with Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2005. Pic: Guy FarrarThe late John La Rose (centre) with Linton Kwesi Johnson in 2005. Pic: Guy Farrar

And in less than a month, £11,248 has been donated by customers and strangers from across the world.

“The response has been overwhelming,” Vanessa said. “It’s humbling to see how many people just wanted to support us.

“It reaffirms that closing it wasn’t the right thing to do.

“The amount of history that would have been lost... This is not simply a bookshop. It was a catalyst for many events in the UK, political movements and groups that came out of them.”

New Cross Massacre Action Committee demonstrators outside County Hall, London, in 1981. The inquest into the deaths of thirteen young people in a New Cross house fire was due to begin. Picture: PANew Cross Massacre Action Committee demonstrators outside County Hall, London, in 1981. The inquest into the deaths of thirteen young people in a New Cross house fire was due to begin. Picture: PA

Back in the early ’60s John, an activist who had come over from Trinidad, was running his own publishing house in the home he shared with Sarah in Finsbury Park.

They would sell books out of bin liners in the streets, but as demand grew they decided to take on the empty shop unit nearby.

As the only outlet for black literature, and one of the only places young black writers could get their work published, New Beacon soon became a catalyst for groups including the Caribbean Artist Movement and Black Parents Movement.

Well-known Caribbean writers Mervyn Morris, Sir Wilson Harris, John Jacob Thomas and CLR James all had work published through New Beacon Books. And John was later instrumental in getting 20,000 people to protests over the New Cross house fire in 1981, in which 13 young black people were killed.

He also found time to set up the George Padmore Institute above the shop in 1991, an archive and research centre for materials relating to Caribbean, African and Asian communities in the UK. So it’s really no wonder people from all over the country and as far afield as the USA have chipped in to help it out.

Vanessa has also noticed a welcome increase in footfall too.

“We’ve got people coming in from across London, Manchester and even the USA,” she said.

“It’s good to see John’s work has not been forgotten.”


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