When I lived in the housing co-operative (in the early to mid-nineties), there was a bookshop a few streets away. Painted bright yellow, it stood out from its surroundings. All down the narrow street to the seafront were metal back doors into hot and dirty restaurant kitchens, with giant-sized cooking oil cannisters piled up outside them. Then, near the bottom, you'd see this sunshine yellow facade, with a bench outside. The shop was named after the building's former life: The Public House. One of my flatmates worked there for a bit, subsidising her MA.
These were the days when, rather than seeking the book you wanted online, you browsed a bookshop to see what it had on offer. I didn't have much of an income at the time, so it wasn't somewhere I shopped frequently, but I suppose curiosity must have overcome penury at some point, because I certainly bought at least a couple of eye-opening/mind-expanding magazines there. And probably my book of Patti Smith lyrics, and a book or two about the Velvet Underground.
It was a bookshop born of the Seventies, and as such, I should have found it rather comforting: its stock touched on many of the same free love, free food and free minded topics that lined my parents' own bookshelves. Many of the books and magazines on offer here, though, pushed boundaries far further than my parents would have been comfortable with, and in retrospect I think that my horizons were widened a little more than I expected.
Yesterday, I went to a talk by the shop's founder, Richard Cupidi: I booked the ticket out of pure curiosity, remembering his name from when my flatmate would come home with tall tales of things he'd done or said that day. The Public House bookshop closed in 1999, one of several small independent bookshops that Brighton boasted when I first arrived here, but that have almost all gone to the wall.
The small room where the talk took place soon filled up, and, as well as a few younger folk, the audience seemed to comprise the hip elderly. There was a grandma in jeggings. A wheelchair user in leathers. An old lady with two very long plaits. Grey-haired men in flawlessly-tied statement scarves. The two older women in front of me were having a good catch-up talk about how Cupidi used to hand out hash brownies at the shop.
Unfortunately, I didn't catch the name of the guy who gave Cupidi's introduction, but it was very good. And then Cupidi spoke. He's a very compelling raconteur, and an hour passed very quickly, as we listened to his anecdotes - and only a few visuals, because, he said, when he came to look back through his keepsakes, he realised they'd been too busy *doing* to record much, and of course, these were long before the days that everyone had their own camera in a mobile phone, or was uploading videos to YouTube or blogging everything.
I was very struck by how these visuals echoed the norms of my childhood: that flyers were type-written and photocopied or mimeographed; posters were often hand-written; so much was black and white.
He came to the UK from the States, and was living in Clapham in London when someone offered him a job in Brighton. His UK geography being vague, he mistook it for Brixton and assumed he'd be able to walk there. But when he came down - by train - he fell for Brighton: "This place is absurd", he thought, "It shouldn't exist".
To hear him tell it, he got the four-storey building for free - times have certainly changed in Brighton. After its beginnings as a pub, it was briefly a corkscrew factory, and then lay dormant and boarded up for years. In 1973, Cupidi went to see the estate agent, who gave him the key to look round: he asked when he should bring it back and was told 'there's no hurry'. Now, whether or not he subsequently paid for it, or leased it, he didn't make clear, but they cleaned the place up (he says, when he thinks back to that first glimpse of it, he could swear there was an actual pond upstairs. With tadpoles living in it) and it became his family home as well as a community bookshop, learning space, creche, gallery, etc etc.
On the front of the shop was painted, "Read for power. The book should be a ball of light in your hands". Books were shelved, not in sections, but purely in alphabetical order, with the idea that customers would thus be more likely to stumble across something new. The shop was run as a co-operative (in all things, including stock) and, Cupidi agreed with the ex-members of his staff who were present, pay was low.
The more dramatic parts of his talk covered a visit from Allen Ginsberg, who said the shop was 'better than City Lights'; and attacks from fascist extremists, who threw a fire extinguisher at Cupidi and used to shatter its windows with marbles. In 1999, the end of the net book agreement (which allowed bookshops to set their on pricing) meant the end of the shop altogether.
They paid off their debts, in strict order: the smallest enterprises got paid first. The Public House is now a private home, and Cupidi is a hypnotherapist. There is a fantastic thread on the local history site, with memories so of their times, and the perfect revelation that the daughter of the other hippy bookshop in town (Unicorn Books, before my time) was named Circe.
The talk really impressed on me how much Brighton has changed, even in the couple of decades I've lived here. I suppose one doesn't notice that a zeitgeist is a transient thing, especially when it's the one in which you're becoming an adult. If I'd known that the Public House bookshop was a symbol of an era that was dying out, would I have regarded it differently? Probably. Fortunately, things simply are what they are, until hindsight kicks in.