Building a socialist bookshop

Pete Cannell describes how a socialist bookshop was built up through a period of social and political struggle in Scotland. These struggles may have abated for the time being but in the shape of sfbbooks they leave a permanent resource for the radical left which feeds a continued hunger for ideas and provides inspiration for future battles.

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Based in Edinburgh I’ve been building up a mobile ‘bookshop’ for about 13 years now. You could call me an accidental bookseller. Back in the day I was a member of the SWP (Socialist Workers Party) and took on the job of looking after the branch bookstall; a slightly haphazard collection of books and pamphlets by mostly SWP authors. They saw the light of day at some branch meetings and most public events that the party organised. However, for a brief period it seemed like a time when the left was opening up. The social forum movement was bringing people together across Europe in large numbers. The anti-war movement was holding big meetings across the city, often in localities that had not seen political meetings for many years. There were Greens and Socialists in the Parliament and the left seemed to be coalescing under the umbrella of the Scottish Socialist Party. This was all to be short lived but it meant that for a while there was the possibility of turning a party bookstall into something more like a movement resource. In 2005 Make Poverty History and the build up to the G8 at Gleneagles provided the opportunity to do this on a big scale.

A small number of us built a coalition, which we called G8 Alternatives. We decided, with some trepidation, that if the world was coming to Edinburgh we had to think big. In one sense we were of the moment – adopting and adapting what we’d seen at the social forums in Florence, Paris and London. We pulled it off with a massive counter-summit and a string of demos. I was involved in this and took my books to all the events in the months of preparation. When the events took place we borrowed a Church hall in the centre of the city and hundreds of activists, NGO delegates and passers by came in; browsing, discussing and buying books. Working on very narrow margins, huge sales at the G8 aggregated so that I could permanently grow the stock.

At the time some of us thought the G8 experience was the start of a new opening for the left. In the event the opening was short lived. One thing I took from the experience was the thirst for ideas about socialist politics that goes way beyond the narrow confines of the organised left. So I’ve kept going. Over time the network of organisations that invite me to turn up has grown and the books are always popular. Even when sales are low the books trigger discussion. The next time people ask advice on what to read. These days I operate as sfbbooks with an extensive stock of both new and second hand books. I keep prices as low as I possibly can and still break even. You can check the stock out at sfbbooks.wordpress.com and order by email at sfbbooks@gmail.com

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