Above: Still from Jeff Preiss's film Stop (detail). Credit: Jeff Preiss.


Before the digital revolution, a basic informal critical theory network existed: the independent critical theory specialist bookstores. Each bookshop would take delivery of new titles and make these available to visitors--the shops were often open long hours well into the late evening. Critical theory was curated within the store, with books by the great key names also usually available, alphabetically listed. Some of the bookstores that have been important for me and which have now disappeared--or are existing as shadows of their former-selves--include: Karnac Books (Swiss Cottage); Compendium (Camden Town); Tate Modern bookstore; Book and Comic Exchange, Notting Hill; Dillons, Gower St.; Dillons, Long Acre; The ICA bookstore; Koenig Books, Charing Cross Road; and the Architectural Association bookshop.

These bookstores were valuable far beyond just selling theory books. They served as meeting-points and geo-physical reference-points in the city. One might visit a certain shop to purchase a certain book, or one might drop-in to have a casual read through new titles. In each such bookstore staff knowledgeability was valuable--their direction was similar to a knowledgeable librarian who can guide a reader to a specific book but also other noteworthy and recommended books within a topic or theme. These shops often also had a noticeboard and/or poster-wall as a well as a section for magazines and academic-type journals. In many ways the independent critical theory bookstore had a status similar to the independent record shop--with the curatorial efforts by staff being crucial to both.

It is depressing that these bookshops have vanished and are no longer around (some still exist as pale shadows). There is no direct digital equivalent of this network of booksellers. Without these indie shops the scene seems less vital, depleted, and rather hollowed out. The atmosphere is post-cataclysmic with the centre of London feeling emptier and actually dead as a consequence.

The Cairncross review of the UK press (published this week) recommends that in order to save some forms of reporting and journalism, certain types of reporting could receive tax breaks and charitable status ... the same approach could (and should) be applied to independent specialist bookstores.

(13 February 2019)