A Bookshop of One’s Own by Jane Cholmeley

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Review by Karen Langley

Back in the 20th century, the world was a very different place to live in if you were female and/or gay. Equal pay was a pipe dream; rape within marriage was accepted; nursery provision to support working mothers was a joke; and women were abused and derided on an everyday basis. And if you were gay, you were a pariah and most likely well hidden in the closet. It was against this landscape that the second wave of feminism (generally called at the time the Women’s Liberation Movement, or Women’s Lib) emerged in the late 1960s/early 1970s and took off. Progress was made, but it was still an uphill battle, and it was during the Thatcherite 1980s that two women decided it was time to open a women-only feminist bookshop in London. 

Jane Cholmeley and Sue Butterworth, partners in life as well as work, found themselves redundant and in a position to follow their dream. Despite having no experience of running a bookshop, the stars aligned in the form of the GLC and a vacant bookshop in the famed Charing Cross Road. With a combination of grant funding, loans from friends and family and sheer determination, they set up the Silver Moon Bookshop at number 68, along with a third co-founder, Jane Anger. The Silver Moon would run for a pioneering yet complex 17 years, and in A Bookshop of One’s Own, Cholmeley sets out to tell the tale from the inside.

The 1980s were a difficult decade, with Thatcher’s Conservative government in conflict with many local authorities, most relevant here the Labour-run Greater London Council. The latter, in a rather far-sighted move, was determined to maintain the character of Charing Cross Road as the bookshop street of London, and so was offering reduced rents to new bookshops. With the addition of the grant funding they offered, the Silver Moon women were able to embark on their project and set up a tiny bookshop with a downstairs café. This was designated for women only and had to be run as a private members club to ensure that men could not use it – a nice reversal to the plethora of men only clubs in the capital.

After tentative beginnings, the shop went from strength to strength, and Cholmeley explores all of the aspects of running a business like this. And being a feminist bookshop, things were not straightforward, as there were many moral issues to consider. What business model should be used? Could you run something like this as a collective, much as other feminist and gay bookshops did, or was it impossible to carry on a business by committee? How was the fairest way to work out wages? Cholmeley and her colleagues were determined that all should be as equal as possible, but did come to the conclusion that there would have to be ‘bosses’ and ‘employees’.

Silver Moon was welcomed with open arms by women who wanted good books to read, a safe and welcoming space to shop and eat cake, a source of Lesbian and Gay writing, and eventually events with women writers. The list of names who supported Silver Moon and did readings/personal appearances in the shop is impressive: from Margaret Atwood to Maya Angelou, Angela Carter to P.D. James, so many powerful and wonderful women writers graced the place with their presence. And as well as the authors, the shop had many famous customers, from politician Dennis Healey to Tom Baker and even Neil Tennant, to name just a few. Impressively enough, when the shop expanded in the 1990s, the new area was opened by Glenda Jackson, then an MP, who just wandered over from Parliament to cut the ribbon!!

However, the world being what it was, Cholmeley and her colleagues had plenty of setbacks to negotiate. There was obviously going to be hostility from the opposite gender, and although Cholmeley tries to keep things light, she doesn’t underplay the horrible abuse they had to deal with at times; from vile phone calls to aggressive visitors, the existence of a feminist bookshop definitely seemed to disturb some people. Fortunately, there were no really bad consequences, but it’s nasty to read about.

Also interesting to hear about is the shop’s relationship with what could be considered rivals, e.g. the Sisterwrite bookshop in Islington and the short-lived Virago bookshop, which was closer to hand in Covent Garden. Fortunately, open conversations usually ironed out any problems, and Virago in particular were always very supportive of Silver Moon. 

Cholmeley is clear-eyed when exploring the ups and downs of the bookselling trade, and there were certainly pluses and minuses. The job of running a bookshop obviously took major commitment, and she pays tribute to all the women who worked there, including their memories and thoughts about Silver Moon. As with the feminist movement itself, the book and the story of the shop itself embrace both the personal and the political. Silver Moon did survive the breakdown of the personal relationship between its two founders who fortunately managed to continue a close friendship after the split, and this book is in many ways Cholmeley’s tribute to her late partner, Sue Butterworth.

So why did Silver Moon finally go out of business? As Cholmeley relates, it seems to have been a combination of factors. The removal in the 1990s of the Net Book Agreement, whereby there was a fixed price for books across all sellers, destroyed many, many smaller retailers who couldn’t compete with the price-slashing tactics of bigger organisations. The arrival of Amazon also dealt another death blow, with the new website offering a massive selection of books which could be bought conveniently online. Cholmeley relates the emotional conflicts Silver Moon faced when trying to decide whether to embrace the digital world, but to compete with Amazon was impossible. 

The final blow, it seems, was capitalism. The GLC, for whom Cholmeley has nothing but praise, were aware of the special nature of Charing Cross Road and keen to keep it as it was. However, with the Council’s demise, private landlords stepped in and rents skyrocketed. Silver Moon simply could not pay these hugely inflated prices, particularly with sales dropping because of the competition, and unfortunately had to take the decision to close. I feel, too, that the changing world didn’t help. Cholmeley repeats the slogan that she would embrace post-feminism in a post-patriarchal society, and although it seemed superficially as if women’s demands had been met and that gay people were well and truly out of the closet, recent reverses have shown just how fragile our gains are.

I should here declare a personal bias, in that I have very happy memories of my visits to the shop and café in the 1980s; alas, motherhood got in the way of trips to London in its later years, and I never saw the place in its expanded form. By the time I restarted my visits to the capital, Silver Moon was long gone and much missed… 

At the end of the book, Cholmeley walks down Charing Cross Road and notes how there are hardly any bookshops left, listing the current occupants – from chain coffee shops to sweet shops to barbers, this makes depressing reading, and I can attest how much worse things are; I visited recently and the plethora of ghastly souvenir shops and tourist traps ensures that the street’s character has completely gone. In hindsight, one can only applaud the GLC for its attempts on behalf of the bookshops of Charing Cross Road and mourn their loss.

A Bookshop of One’s Own is a brilliant read from start to finish. As well as a record of the pioneering bookshop/café and its inspirational women, it’s also a marvellous piece of social history, bringing to life a world which is very much lost now. This world, where women worked collectively, where organisations were operating for the common good, where culture was valued and profiteering was not the motive, was often difficult to navigate, but the rewards were rich (and not in a financial sense). Jane Cholmeley, her colleagues, and their bookshop were and are inspirational, and I’m grateful that she’s recorded their story so beautifully in this book.  

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Karen Langley blogs at kaggsysbookishramblings and regrets the loss of any bookshop.

Jane Cholmeley, A Bookshop of One’s Own (Mudlark, 2024). 978-0008651046. 384pp, hardback.

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8 comments

  1. This sounds fascinating. Sadly I didn’t know about the bookshop until long after it closed, but will enjoy reading about it. It sounds like a great companion read to the one about Virago, A Bite of the Apple.

    1. It’s a fascinating story, Simon, whether or not you were ever able to visit the shop. It does indeed make an excellent read alongside Lennie Goodings’ book, and as I actually visited both shops it had even more interest for me!

  2. Charing Cross Road is horrible now, a shadow of its former self. If something so neon-lit, plastic and garish can be called a shadow! Very sad if you’re old enough to remember what it was. I’m not averse to change, but I really don’t see what it offers now, other than mass-produced tat that’s available anywhere.

    On a more cheerful note, this sounds a wonderful read!

    1. I totally agree about Charing X Road – was shocked on a recent visit, really, which threw the forward thinking attitude of the GLC into sharp relief when I read this book. There’s no soul in the place any more, and the shops are horrible – full of tat as you say. Thank goodness for Foyles…

      But yes, this book is marvellous and if you’re old enough to remember the old Ch X Road, as I am, it brings back so many memories!!

  3. Social history is such a vital part of documentary history, social history told from an insider view even more important, and telling how people’s lives are acknowledged and made better possibly the most crucial of all. A great summary, Karen, and a reminder of how political decisions, however seemingly insignificant, can have far-reaching consequences.

    1. I totally agree, and this book really does record the changes in wider society over the period it covers, as well as telling the fascinating story of the bookshop and the women who ran it. As for the politics – it terrifies me how things have changed so much since then.

  4. This sounds like such a great read, even more so, of course, when you’ve got history of the shop and of the area. I like how you changed your bio to suit this volume: nice touch!

    1. Thanks Marcie! It *is* a wonderful read and really whisked me back to the past.

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