During the 1970s the main retail outlet for books was W. H. Smith, situated mostly at railway and tube stations and airports. This was to change for the growing black community in Britain with the founding of the publishers New Beacon Books in 1967 by John La Rose, who began selling books at meetings and conferences eventually opening a book shop on Stroud Green Road in Finsbury Park, North London. Bogle L’Ouverture Publications followed in the footsteps of New Beacon Books. Indeed John gave us long term credit for our early stock. It was a natural step for both publishers to take since virtually nothing existed to cater for the nascent revolution in literature from Africa, the Caribbean and the U.S.A.
Our publishing house first began at 110 Windermere Road in South Ealing. However, the front room of our home at 141 Coldershaw Road, in West Ealing, curtains not drawn, became our first base as a bookshop. The reaction was mixed. Anne Johnson, a school teacher in the borough welcomed the move and visited with her pupils. Firdous Ali, from Kashmir a local resident, was excited to locate the publisher of How Europe Underdeveloped Africa in the neighbourhood. Both have remained personal friends and supporters.
After a few months of operating other voices with a different point of view began to make themselves heard. A neighbour two doors away complained to the council that we were lowering the value of the properties in the street by having a bookshop in the front room. The council gave us six months to cease trading.
Our son Chauncey was a frequent visitor of the record shop Lullaby Broadway in Chignell Place West Ealing, a cul-de-sac having about a dozen shops. We learnt about the lease for sale at number five from him. Cul-de-Sacs’ are inviting, yet with some foreboding not the kind of road one ventures, except by chance. The other shops included a coal merchant, a solicitor, a hair dresser, restaurant and undoubtedly the most frequented a betting shop at the end of the road. The quiet cul-de-sac came alive when drivers of cars who were not tenants parked without consideration for others, blocked and frustrated other drivers who then reacted with a cacophony of car horns.
The bookshop was a blaze of colour with it’s bold images of black culture depicted on posters, craft, drums and books which excited, attracted some and repelled others. One visitor who sold the newspaper News Line enquired whether we had permission to sell such books. Another visitor, a woman bought greeting cards with black images, asked for a pair of scissors and proceeded to cut up the cards before our very eyes. However deluded that customer may have been it was just a sign of things to come as the bookshop became the target of more violent and damaging attacks by the National Front and KKK, who left their calling cards. Our reply to this assault was to declare, ‘We won’t be terrorised out of existence.’
The bookshop soon became a Mecca and an Oasis in West London. Jessica loved it. Persons dropped in to chat, to browse, perhaps to buy a book or a poster, to ask advice about what to do when stopped by the police or just to bring her up to date with the news about the Caribbean. It was her window to the world.
For Marcia Gordon, a youthful thirteen year old at a time, when to have one’s hair in cane-row was considered revolutionary, the shop was her Aladdin’s Cave with Jessica guiding her political awareness, part of her journey. For Tonyin, the bookshop provided a bridge between Africans and West Indians. Young Zebullan, growing up on Copley Road Estate, admitted visiting the book shop, just to read the books. Memories of Rico recalled Jessica taking a group of youngsters to the West Indian Students Centre in Earls Court to attend Saturday classes Hazel Alexander, a young volunteer recalled that one never knew who would turn up at the book shop. Louise Bennett (Miss Lou) folklorist from Jamaica, Samuel Selvon, author of Lonely Londoners, Linton Kwesi Johnson, the novelist and biographer Andrew Salkey, South African novelist, Ellen Kwuswayo, Ntoge Shanko author of ‘For Coloured Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When The Rainbow is Enuf’ ( the names of two authors need attention) and many more graced the book shop with their presence and contributions.
Schools were invited to leave the comfort zone of the classroom and to participate in workshops on a wide range of topics. The experiences of organising events at the bookshop were to become a blue print for the founding of the International Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books of the 1980’s. Jessica together with John La rose were joint directors. For the first time the fairs brought together artists, writers, poets and musicians from the diaspora with those who consume their products. One of the unforgettable highlights was the Evening of Poetry at the first Fair.