The dictionary tells me that a beatnik is a usually young and artistic person from the 1950s and early 1960s who rejected the mores of conventional society — but Dennis Harrison and the Albion Beatnik store have made that definition their own. Read on to find out more about this intriguing store in Oxford, which I suspect really is the heart of Oxford culture, despite Dennis’ assertions to the contrary!
What is the ‘beatnik’ life?
I haven’t the foggiest: abandonment and decay is how I read their biographies. Many things encourage a stern and grumpy glare from me, but the most pointless confrontation has to be the question from a customer: am I a beatnik? I have long hair, for sure, hang murals from my ceiling, add graffiti to walls, but I read Jane Austen and listen to Bach, aspire to Christian revelation and don’t care much for the exotic, the stuff supposedly discovered by the Beatles’ beatnik love affair with marijuana and the Maharishi. So am not sure I know what a beatnik is, and I’m certainly not one: most self-appointed beatnik or hippy types, as far as I can see, are bilious with envy or bitterness and freeload off others.
Can you tell us a little about how (and why?) you began the store?
I’ve always loved books as objects and many of the words that they contain, and have had a full working life in the book trade, which I inadvertently fell in to rather like a cow in a cattle grid when a post-university work plan to go to Israel fell through (they decided to invade one of their neighbours and I forget which neighbour, take your pick, they’d invade my shop if they’d settled next door). So this shop here is part of an organic progression. The bookshop I had previous to this one, in fact simultaneously for quite a while, was suburban and mainstream, though that was the book trade as was, and how it had been for decades, suburban and mainstream. I sensed that the world was in free fall and that I needed to jump off my particular part of it, although I didn’t realise that the new world was to have so little sense to it and that all the old commercial rules were to be thrown out of the window.
So in a sense this shop opened at its appropriate time, though had I opened twenty years earlier I fancy I’d have made some money and been hideously trendy; now I aim to preserve my self-respect and am just hideous. I’d always wanted to have a shop in Oxford and I’d tried for years, but I’d always come up against the unmitigated greed of the University colleges, who I suppose were once paternalistic but had swallowed every Thatcherite enema for their supposed financial constipation, though they’ll pay the price soon like every rapacious landlord does. So really I opened when at last I had found an honourable lease, an honourable landlord and a site I felt at ease within.
It’s been fun not following any of the old rules – the shop doesn’t even have a counter – and watching people’s reaction to that has been interesting. Some rules were broken accidently or through laziness, others because that is the way to go. It’s not a shop for autodidacts and addicts of A-Z thinking, rather it’s for browsers, for people who can leave their footnotes at the door and who are able to draw their own lines from only a few dots. That rules out most British people because the National Curriculum has taught them to think that reading is for understanding job applications and writing is for filling them in; Europeans and Americans, or at least the distilled versions of them walking the streets of Oxford, are far more open minded, and my shop is more like the United Nations when the British delegates have buggered off to buy their clothes at Primark. Primark sums up England.
Can you tell us about Oxford? And the community around the store?
Oxford is still essentially either town or gown, and I regret that I don’t understand the place although I thought that I did, but that would be true of everywhere where there is some wealth (which is the same as too much wealth in my opinion), and wealth is the aspect of modern life that is most corrosive to a life consisting of equilibrium: ich bin ein Burgerkinger. The characters in the novels of D.H. Lawrence rarely pursue wealth, they pursue an added dimension to their life and that’s a very different thing. Something has happened to the people in contemporary novels, and by and large that mirrors whatever has happened to real people: the pursuit of wealth over happiness, the trivial and simple over the profound and difficult, the digital over the analogue.
I suppose I’m lucky enough to be passionate about both. I’ve failed at most things, including being a fabulous jazz musician and as a novelist, so the next best thing is to invite real fabulous jazz musicians to come and play in a bookshop. I’ve always put on jazz, duos to big bands – in churches to railways stations, anywhere. There’s a wonderful realism with jazz musicians, their life force is strong and they are looking to be enthusiastic; market forces are writ large in their lives, and so long as you are seen to be fair, they’ll be game. Books are very aspirational, and so is jazz: you have to believe that there is no such thing as a wrong note. One of the great things about the space here is that not only is it aspirational (so many Facebook profile pictures come from this shop), you have to be creative to use it for there’s a massive pillar space blocking out the middle of the shop: performers have to stare at it, mindful of the audience vistas either side. I sell jazz CDs as well, and I have often wondered why it was only W.H. Smith’s (an historic British retailer) that combined the two medium. And like Smith’s the shop also sells wonderful hand crafted stationery from Immaginacija, a humble brand with a strong identity, a passionate believer in the supremacy and restorative quality of the analogue experience.
Tell us about the books your store carries? I read that the store carried jazz/music books more than
Yes, it is jazz centric, but that is to give it identity and not sales. I believe that what remains unsold on your shelves encourages rapport with a customer. If it’s zany and fresh, then the customer feels that way, even if the specifics don’t grab you. The shop stocks fiction from the twentieth century only, much that is in translation, and does poetry well. Poetry remains firmly visceral and analogue, in the centre of the shop, and its burgeoning sales reflect this. Of all the written art forms, poetry is the most tactile and the most wedded to the written page. I have an ocean liner’s worth of second-hand books.
What musical or literary guests stand out in your mind since the store began?
There are so many readings and music nights here – in term time often every night of the week, and I have perhaps 70 poetry evenings every year – that it would be impossible to cite a highlight. It is always a personal treat to have Michael Horovitz read here as I adore all that his work and life stands for; John Hegley is always memorable; Jamie McKendrick is is effortlessly authoritative and is a major poet of his or any generation. But I suppose one reading with Kevin Crossley-Holland and Liz Berry (her first full collection has just been published) was particularly rewarding: both poets seemed to roll up their sleeves and were generous and inclusive, closing the evening with an impromptu conversation about their craft.
Jazz is the hub of the shop, and it’s always a tremendous treat to have either Gilad Atzmon, without any doubt the world’s most creative and intense saxophonist, or Sarah Gillespie, who brims with originality and is the most worthwhile singer songwriter around in the UK at the moment, a national treasure; then again too many to mention…
A review in The Guardian described your store as the heart of Oxford culture – why has your store resonated with so many people, do you think?
I’m told this, but I think that’s Chinese whispers. Generally people speak well of the shop, it has a strong identity and is a strong brand. As students walk past with friends or parents, pointing fingers harpoon the shop’s contours, respectful and cool phrases polish its halo. But it’s all word of mouth and a litany of well wishing and intention: if everyone who spoke well of the Albion Beatnik and who intended to buy a book actually bought a book, I’d be happier.
Marketing speak would be that the shop is vintage; I think the shop is authentic, and it may be this that people respond to. It could so easily be up its own arse and whilst some clever clogs will say that it is, I think it is met with more respect than denigration. For instance it is an anti-wi-fi zone, not because I am Luddite but because I believe that it should be a haven where you can shake the dust and debris of the world off as you step inside, and the shop first and foremost is an analogue experience. As the Facebook group page states: “The shop has a no petting, diving or bombing policy (unless with the owner). And if you are genuine and enthusiastic, you are always welcome.”
The shop didn’t go viral, rather a poster that hangs in the window went viral which is a philosophical difference: the real world doesn’t go viral. People ask for this poster and I refuse to give it away. It is included as a found poem in an anthology that the shop produced a few years ago, The Sounds of Surprise, and that costs £5!
The poster is a variation of a fairly well known printer’s hype on their trade, written by the formidable Beatrice Ward in 1932. It could be portrayed as a stance against the digital onslaught but it was in fact more a cynical act on my part and its rationale was that it would be blogged, tweeted and photographed to death, which it is. I did think when I first hung it up that I’d be laughed out of business, but surprisingly people take it seriously. The subtext of the sign is, of course, “Stop taking a photo of an experience you won’t have: instead buy a book (and make me rich).”