Battle of the Bookshops: The Albion Beatnik in Oxford

1st Dec 2010


The best bookstores aren’t bookstores, they’re part of your way of life. It’s very not trendy to say, I’m sure, but as a student for me it was Buy the Book in Ellen that made me think “I want to find a place like that.”

Other regulars at The Albion Beatnik talk much more sophisticatedly and, given the oddity quirky eccentricity uniqueness of its patrons and personnel, no doubt more accurately about Black Books. The point we’re making is that Oxford’s Albion Beatnik is our social as well as book-buying hub.

Opening some time around midday and usually closing after midnight, this is a place where you can sit in dilapidated red buttonback sofas and choose the poet mug you want to drink your (very strong, very good) coffee out of (I’m always Sylvia Plath. Fortunately there are two Plath mugs so I rarely have to resort to actually wrestling the other clientele or settling for Seamus Heaney).

Hanging from the ceiling is artwork assembled from random packaging and Shirley Bassey records, and a burnt lab coat scrawled on by Beatnik regular, Sky poet-in-residence and former London mayoral candidate Steve Micalef.

It’s a place where zinesters meet to pillage material for handmades, politics students tap out theses whilst stopping to explain Bukowski or canvas customers on a point of Marxist theory, and poetry groups (the Backroom Poets, Oxford Improvisers, Oxford University Poetry Society and many both more and less official) meet to plot whatever it is poetry groups meet and plot about.

The actual bookstore is like nothing else, specialising in books on jazz (jazz is a background constant, tracks [to quote a line about a bar in Bucharest from one of my novels] “so cool your breath forms clouds that dance on your drink”), Beat poetry, film theory, punk, and the darker and more humorous side of travel.

It’s a place where anyone who cares about any kind of counter-culture can find everything they need, and find themselves immersed in a real counter-culture. All of it illuminated by an extensive set of photocopied zine-style guides called things like 1920s American must reads; and Henry Miller and Anais Nin.

It’s after dark, though, that the place comes to life. Not only is there a basement where bands rehearse and reading groups read, and poets, er, poetify; the Albion Beatnik, under the benevolent, so shy he’s a legend, gaze of owner Dennis, is where the very best culture in Oxford takes place.

There are improv parties of jazz, spoken word, folk, comedy and the circus bizarre that attract crowds of over a hundred. The store is home to And Other Stories and Babel GuidesJericho Sessions, when authors from overseas and their translators come and read, and Ray Keenoy performs epic pieces of Yiddish lore; to the Lion Lounge and Back Room Poets. It’s also the place where I gave my first ever reading, and has been the spiritual home of my words, music and art nights ever since.

Opposite Oxford’s best restaurant, The Big Bang – which serves only handmade sausages and also has an upstairs reading room – The Albion Beatnik is the only place I ever buy books. Enter and you’re not entering a bookshop, you’re entering a new world. And it’s one you might never leave.

Guest post by author Dan Holloway, of the marvellous Eight Cuts (publishers of Cody James’ The Dead Beat, which we reviewed a while back). If you’re in Oxford, head to their Text in the City event, taking place tomorrow.

Image courtesy of Dan Holloway, and shows author Katelan Foisy reading from her book Bloody and Pudding at Lilith Burning at The Albion Beatnik earlier this year.