I love newsagents. The local newsagent was the first place that I was allowed to walk to on my own, when I was about six or seven, armed with 20p (often in actual pennies) to buy some cola bottles from the pic ‘n’ mix. When I was in my early teens, a group of us used to terrorise the local shop flicking through magazines in desperate need of Take That photos, before the sign went up to decree that ‘no more than three schoolchildren can enter the shop at once’, a move that we thought authoritarian and deeply unfair. As a student, I took much amusement from the Manchester suburban newsagent who proudly boasted with a sign in the window of his shop that he kept ‘THE BEST TOP SHELF IN TOWN’. Flicking through my phone recently, I was somewhat alarmed to see that roughly 50% of my photos were of daily newspaper billboards (is that the proper term?) outside Derby newsagents. I sincerely want to meet the person who writes these for the Derby Telegraph and thank them for their services in helping me to settle in to my new city.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, therefore, that as historian I also find newsagents deeply fascinating. Newsagent shops are (were?) a modern phenomenon. Before I get trampled on by a horde of angry early-modernists, I am aware that ‘news agents’ existed well before the late nineteenth century. But both as a distinct place and occupation, the retail newsagent really came into its own in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By the interwar period, newsagents were organising, with the first meeting of the National Federation of Retail Newsagents taking place in Leicester in 1919. One of the reasons for this organisation, I suspect (having not really done proper research on this at all) is that other retailers such as booksellers and stationers were mobilising against newsagents as encroaching on their trades. Because then, as now, newsagents diversified beyond selling newspapers. The alarm in the book trade at the launch of Penguin Books, which were expressly designed to be sold in non-traditional retail spaces like newsagents, is just one example of the book trade trying to mobilise against newsagents.
However, newsagents reached parts of the population that most booksellers and stationers hadn’t previously: the working class. Newsagents could provide a one-stop shop for working-class autodidacts in the interwar period. For instance, Dobson’s, of Brook Street in Chester, was an absolute life line for Frank Forster. We know from Forster’s diaries (1934-1938) that almost daily trips to Dobson’s provided him with a routine when he was unemployed. It was there that he bought the reporters’ notebooks and ink to write his diaries. It was there, and not a radical bookshop, that he ordered books and magazines on Soviet Russia and dialectical materialism, his first introduction to Communist theory, eventually leading to him joining the (tiny) Chester branch of the Communist Party of Great Britain. It was to Dobson that he gave his form to join Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club. It was there, too, that he bought his father’s Daily Herald (and used his Daily Herald coupons to buy classic novels), with regret at his reformism. Dobson was also a source of friendly and somewhat intellectual discussion, something Forster felt he lacked at home, with diary reports of conversations about the news and even language learning (Dobson seems to have been an enthusiast for Esperanto). I only wish I had Dobson’s side of the story but, alas, I have only this from a Kelly’s Directory from 1910.
Both the interwar newspaper industry and the book trade now have numerous historians. But what about newsagents? They seem to me to provide a way in to talking about the uneasy relationship between book and newspaper publishing in this period when newspaper publishers were becoming major players in the production of non-fiction, in particular (the proliferation of ‘home advice’ and books about hobbies published under newspaper branding is the subject of a whole other post). But they might also be seen as agents of knowledge and places of community, especially important in understanding the intellectual life of the British working classes, to use Jonathan Rose’s phrase, in the first half of the twentieth century.
There are other stories to be told about newsagents. Stories about youth: Mass Observation diaries of the Second World War are a goldmine for complaints about the unreliability of paper boys. Stories about labour: in this ATV report from 1959, the employment of children comes under dispute in Derbyshire. Stories, indeed, about class, race and Britishness, as the MACE archive also carries several reports of the firebombing of newsagents, as well as the story of the Asian newsagent in Smethwick proudly displaying portraits of Charles and Di to ATV’s Anne Diamond in 1981 (I am desperate to see this; hat-tip to Christine Grandy’s great Rethinking Modern British Studies paper on race in Midlands regional news). Stories about crime and its representation: the murders of newspaper boys and armed robberies.
Proper newsagents now seem to me to be an endangered species, a misplaced habit. Some are still there, clinging on, diversifying as they always have done, in the face of competition from supermarkets opening ‘local’ shops. My local newsagent in Withington, Manchester, closed last year as it sat opposite a new Sainsbury’s Local. The place where I got my pic ‘n’ mix has been converted into a house. For me, the newsagent has become a place of nostalgia. But I imagine there are still many communities in Britain where the newsagent remains a gateway to the wider world.
I don’t know if I will ever get to write twentieth-century British history through the eyes of the newsagent. But somebody should.