By Freya Thomas, English Literature Undergraduate
If you fancy exploring Durham’s independent bookshop scene, a good place to start would be a small step off Saddler street to an antiquated venue with an abundance of charm – The People’s Bookshop. On a slightly grey Friday afternoon, I headed up the building’s slanted wooden stairs to the shop’s attic-like space to have a look around, and to chat to some of the staff there.
On arrival, I was greeted by the lovely Jazmine, a Durham student studying for a masters in 20th and 21st Century Literature, and a part of the spirited volunteer collective that runs the shop. Sat in a wicker chair, tea in hand, I had an opportunity to converse with Jazmine about the history of such a curious space, and its role in Durham city beyond functioning as a retailer of radical political literature.
“An antiquated venue with an abundance of charm”
The space was set up in 2011 by Ben Sellers, whose prior work in the industry lay at Waterstones, before his subsequent transition to social media manager for Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign. Steve, another of the volunteers who joined our tea-filled chat, tells of Corbyn’s visit to the shop in 2015, pointing to a pinned-up picture of the labour party leader against a backdrop of books. The idea of the bookshop stemmed from Sellers’ particular interested in the local history of Durham, with the context of its socialist working-class background; much of the bookshop reflects this interest.
The shelves around the edge of the attic room, sitting beneath sloped ceilings and an eclectic mix of posters, are sorted into a number of different categories: people’s history and people’s politics being the most popular sections, alongside shelves crammed with feminist texts, works exploring class issues specifically, and literature looking at the politics of migration.
Most of the books are second-hand, largely contributed by members of the local community. While Durham may be small and the scope of books seemingly narrow, Jazmine tells me the shop in actuality receives an abundance of donations; far greater than the capacity of the shelves. She then points to a mass of cardboard boxes, all recent donations, and explains many more such boxes are stocked in the already “small” kitchen. While donations are plentiful, their display in-store comes with a small caveat: the books chosen ‘have to be to do with politics, and politics [they] agree with’.
The customer base is varied: students, tourists and local residents all frequently step in to enjoy browsing the motley of works on the shelves. Jazmine tells me that the collective that runs the shop is made up of both students and those in the local community – a lovely opportunity for interaction and relationship building in a city where ‘students and the local community often don’t interact enough’.
While the opportunities to converse, the uncommon literature and the great coffee all draw in visitors, the Saddler Street attraction is a platform for so much more. The People’s Bookshop is also involved in putting on music events, accommodating book readings, and organising and facilitating local grassroots politics. including student protests. For those who are part of the collective, and for those who frequently visit, ‘it’s more than a bookshop’ – as most of the best bookshops are.