North Laine bookshops remembered

Photo:The book cover

The book cover

Photo:Unicorn Bookshop business card

Unicorn Bookshop business card

Photo:Cover of 'The Tarot' by S I MacGregor Mathers, Unicorn Bookshop, 1971

Cover of 'The Tarot' by S I MacGregor Mathers, Unicorn Bookshop, 1971

Photo:Threatening note received during the period when Bill Butler and the Unicorn Bookshop were on trial

Threatening note received during the period when Bill Butler and the Unicorn Bookshop were on trial

Photo:Bill Butler's list of stock items 'retained' by the police during the raid on his shop (The Unicorn)

Bill Butler's list of stock items 'retained' by the police during the raid on his shop (The Unicorn)

Photo:The former Unicorn Bookshop in Gloucester Road

The former Unicorn Bookshop in Gloucester Road

Photo:The Two Way Bookshop in Gardner Street

The Two Way Bookshop in Gardner Street

Photo:N F Brookes' bookshop in Queen's Road

N F Brookes' bookshop in Queen's Road

Photo:N F Brookes (Noel), owner of bookshop in Queen's Road, August 1999

N F Brookes (Noel), owner of bookshop in Queen's Road, August 1999

'Bookends: a partial history of the Brighton book trade'

By John Shire

When I first started to write about bookshops in Brighton I fantasised about some Masonic angle of book-lined roads, one compass arm from the station to the Clock Tower, then winding out to sea through North Street, Duke Street and Ship Street, the other arm running under the station concourse, straight down the hill to St Peter’s, enclosing the North Laine and faltering on the level Steine, the valley floor. Reality is, obviously, far messier than this; the more you find out, the more difficult it becomes to impose a clear picture.  And no amount of research or imagination is going to exhaust the history of Brighton’s books and bookshops.

But if you’re going to start somewhere, then North Laine is the place.

Bookshops in Trafalgar Street

Historically, Trafalgar Street has always been fertile ground for bookshops. During the 19th century Thomas Tourle was at No 19 while E J Trill was at No 7. In the early 20th century Johnson & Young were booksellers from No 79 and People’s Books, run by J Jordan, was at No 90 in 1950. Ben Hutchinson, an important figure in Brighton bookselling, had a flat and one of several bookstores cum shops at No 42 from 1961.

Gloucester Road and Queen's Road

At the bottom of Gloucester Road, on the corner with Gloucester Street, a Metcalfe-Morton, probably related to John Metcalfe Morton, started a large bookshop in 1925. John had run Ye Olde Booke Shoppe in Duke Street for several years, specialising in Masonic items. Later a Mr A Metcalfe-Morton went into business with Mr D Morgan. They took over a former pub – no surprise there – and opened what became known as The Old Bookhouse. They accumulated a large amount of stock, over 10,000 volumes, but still retained a special interest in Masonica and the occult. Bill Butler of the Unicorn Bookshop, further up the same road but forty years later, would have been interested. Even so, 10,000 books is a drop in the ocean compared to the cyclopean stacks of N F Brookes’ shops on Queen’s Road during the 80s and 90s.

The hippy contingent gathered in North Laine

But the chronology is already slipping, probably as a result of the drugs or the magick. North Laine was where the hippy contingent gathered and thrived. Ananda, all beads and incense then, started here, as did Infinity Foods. They both still thrive, in slightly different guises now. Infinity is celebrating 40 years of wholefood goodness this year. The other major hippy hangout was the Unicorn Bookshop, run by Bill Butler and a stream of managers between 1967 and 1974. This was by far the most important bookshop in Brighton, at least as far as general Brighton culture was concerned. Not that you’d know that from the local history books. There is no mention of it in the original Encyclopaedia of Brighton (from 1990 – rectified now in the new edition) and no sign of it in photographic histories of the 60s. They are too full of celebrities visiting the piers instead. And it would have been well worth a decent colour photo too.

More about the Unicorn Bookshop

Both the shop itself and Bill Butler are still remembered as significant and positive contributors to the halcyon days of yore, when Gloucester Road was still easily accessible from the station and ‘The Temple’ on Queen’s Road was still standing. Artist John Upton painted a mural on both walls of the corner building and a prancing unicorn hung over the door. Unicorn published Infinity Foods founder Pete Deadman’s first book, entitled Nature’s Foods. Purveyors of US underground journals, the local alternative press and contemporary radical fiction, Unicorn was the place to hang out. So naturally it was prosecuted for selling obscene publications. Police persecution aside, Bill would flounce around town in a cape and cowboy boots, all six foot of him, talking tarot with the white witch Doreen Valiente, and even appearing on an ITV game show to raise money for the business. A cottage industry flourished from the shop, printing posters, chapbooks and magazines while more professional jobs, such as the reissue of William Morris’s fantasy novel The Sundering Flood, went out to a printer in Hove.

A penchant for the mystical and the occult

And the shops just keep coming. Ross McKinnon-Chorlton, after serving a bookselling apprenticeship at Holleyman & Treacher, opened the specialist film bookshop Bioscope Books in 1972. Then Paul Bonett’s Solstice opened in 1978 [click here for more information], after the Unicorn contingent absconded to Wales in a short-lived attempt at communal living. The first pleasant sight to be seen on emerging from the dark, dank horrors of the station underpass was Brian Boland’s Trafalgar Books, which opened soon after Solstice, in 1979. This shop kept up Trafalgar Street’s penchant for the mystical and occult.

Ethnic mysticism and sorcery

Two shops in particular, though, were leaders in the skull-and-Crowley field: Alan Ball’s ageing green tumble of a shop on the corner of Kensington Place and Ken Johnson’s Avalon Books, mere steps away from the old Unicorn site on Gloucester Road.  Both catered to the rising demand for ethnic mysticism and the Western Way of sorcery. Further down Trafalgar Street, The Brighton Book and Record Exchange opened in 1982 and gave Ken Johnson his first crack at bookselling. The name was simple but unwieldy and not as much fun as changing it to Wax Factor – still going strong, with a window full of precisely the kind of books that have always sold well round here: Philip K Dick, William Burroughs, H P Lovecraft, Alan Watts, Charles Bukowski and the odd eclectic piece of erotica. And some music.

Some shops didn't open very often

In between these shops, Ben Hutchinson, “the last Dickensian bookseller” (according to Richard Cupidi of the Public House Bookshop), occasionally deigned to open his shop at No 42. With an immortal roll-up in his hand, he leased the Unicorn building to Butler, the Duke Street site to Colin Page and allowed the use of his premises for printing flyers for the Labour Party. Like Hutchinson, some shops on Trafalgar Street seemed to have had trouble bothering to open. Blains and Garlands never quite made the grade or, more charitably, preferred to deal privately. Wax Factor and Kevin Daly’s Rainbow Books (on the old Solstice site) are now the sole keepers of the flame.

'Two-way Books' is the oldest bookshop in Brighton

The oldest bookshop in Brighton is in the North Laine, on Gardner Street. James and Sheila Keeble have run Two-Way Books for 47 years and can remember any number of changes in the area, from the dire state of affairs during the 70s and 80s, only partially lightened by the murals and outrage surrounding Unicorn, then the slow climb into the carousel of today’s boutiques and coffee shops.

They also watched David Paine’s book and comic empire grow up in odd directions along Sydney Street, causing some consternation and competition. Now Two-Way Books, largely unchanged, happily shares the North Laine with one of the best graphic novel shops in the country and a primary outlet for just the kind of independent publishing that Unicorn would have appreciated.

For more information

Bookends: A Partial History of the Brighton Book Trade, by John Shire, is available at £10 from Sandpiper Books and Brighton Books in Kensington Gardens, as well as from other bookshops in Brighton.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 211, July/August 2011]

This page was added on 23/08/2011.

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