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Compendium's Closure: No Loss to the Left

Bob Pitt

THE DEMISE of Compendium bookshop in Camden, which finally closed its doors last October after more than three decades of existence, met with expressions of regret from some sections of the left. Radical Philosophy, for example, carried an obituary of the shop by a former Compendium employee, one Philip Derbyshire, who presented it as some kind of beacon for radical thought, while Red Shift bemoaned the loss of "one of the few public outlets for socialist newspapers and magazines in London".

When it opened back in 1968, and for many years afterwards, there was indeed some basis to the picture of Compendium as an "alternative" bookshop. By the time it closed, however, it was something very different – as those who sold left wing literature through the shop, or were employed there, will confirm. Having experienced both, I have a particularly jaundiced view of Compendium.

The truth is that, for all its radical reputation, Compendium repeatedly and systematically ripped off small left wing publishers. Those who entered the basement of the shop, in the naive expectation that they might be paid the money owing to them for newspapers or magazines taken on a sale-or-return basis, were faced with the same Mr Derbyshire who came over all nostalgic about Compendium in Radical Philosophy. He almost invariably found an excuse to avoid paying them, his favourite one being that there wasn’t enough cash in the till. The fact that people had travelled some distance to collect their money, and that the small sums due to them could have been produced from another till, or in the form of a cheque, was of no interest to him.

Why did Derbyshire behave like this? Well, partly because he was a particularly unpleasant example of that familiar phenomenon, the embittered ex-Trot. Having been a member of the International Marxist Group back in the 1970s, he had long ago shed his socialist convictions and felt nothing but contempt for those who had retained theirs.

The other reason was that Derbyshire fancied himself as an intellectual – or, perhaps more accurately, pseudo-intellectual. (Try reading his Radical Philosophy piece – "Compendium was a resource for those engaged in the critique of nascent spectacular society" – without the words "pretentious" and "wanker" appearing unbidden in your mind.) Yet here he was, no more than a glorified shop assistant, forced to serve mere members of the public.

In short, his was the mentality of a bad social security clerk. Resentful at having to do a job which he considered beneath him, and having acquired the small amount of power necessary to piss people around, he took his frustration out on other human beings by doing his best to make their lives as miserable as his own.

The employment practices at the shop were little better. Wages were higher than in mainstream bookshops, it is true, but this was a hangover from Compendium's radical past. In other respects, the workforce was treated appallingly. The responsibility for this lay with the one director who exercised any managerial functions, a certain Anne Shepherd. Staff were bullied, abused, undermined by endless criticism, hired on the basis that they would receive a specific wage and then put on a lower rate when they started work – you name it. As someone once remarked, working at Compendium was like entering a parallel universe ruled by an irrational god.

On one occasion, a young woman successfully applied for a position in Compendium's mail order department, and on the basis of an offer of permanent full-time employment left her previous long-standing but part-time job. A few months later she was given four weeks' notice by Shepherd, who curtly informed her that this was more than her legal entitlement. Only after Camden Trades Council threatened to call for a consumer boycott of Compendium, and the other directors intervened, was the redundancy notice withdrawn.

I would concede that my own rather belligerent reaction to management bullying was unhelpful in promoting a collective response on the part of the workforce. But the basic problem was that most of Compendium's employees didn’t want any kind of confrontation at all with management. For, contrary to what some might assume, the shop was by no means dedicated to left wing or radical literature. The main sales were from the New Age section, and this was reflected in the outlook of the shop's employees. After one particularly abrasive clash with Ms Shepherd, I was approached by a colleague who told me that several members of staff were planning to perform a ritual incantation "to purge the shop of negative energy"!

The fact is that most of the left had long deserted Compendium, and sales of radical publications were low and falling. For example, What Next? was lucky to sell 10 copies an issue there, compared with 40-50 at Housmans, just down the road at King's Cross. Indeed, if comrades are looking for a genuinely radical bookshop, rather than one dishonestly trading on its late-’60s reputation, then they will find it at Housmans. Of course, you have to learn to tolerate Max's, how shall we say, colourful character. But then, no one said life was going to be easy!