Chris Park with Aspidistra Book owner Joe Parkinson

There is a revolution going on and it’s in the Great Northern Warehouse. Don’t believe me? It’s true. I visited Joe Parkinson in Aspidistra Books to find out about a jewel in Manchester’s Literary Crown, an actual independent bookshop with a LGBT specialism no less.

1. First off, what is life like as an independent bookshop?

Very stressful, you feel every bump. As much as there are “Oh God” moments, when things go well there is such a sense of achievement. When you tell people what you do there is a universal consensus of either “that’s nice” or “you’re joking”. It took two to three years to set up and makes very little profit but there have been some incredible achievements. My business approach is to take over a space and if it works, keep it, then find another one and find it’s own characteristic. In here you get wine and suggestions of what books to buy, it’s a very personal experience. In other places I might think it suits a bookshop and a café, I really want to open a bookshop and a cocktail bar, this probably comes from my experience working at Via.

2. How long have you been running?

Since March 2016. The business model changed, at first it was online and events. The original website was not workable so I needed to find a different way, I found someone to start work on it in September 2016.

3. Is Aspidistra a George Orwell reference from the book Keep The Aspidistra Flying?

Yes, me and one other person run this. I read politics and history and George Orwell speaks to me with his unbelievable works. He is fantastic in the way he describes simple things, an Orwell book leaves an imprint on you even though they were written in the 30s and 40s. Keep The Aspidistra Flying looks at the rat-race and staying respectable even though the character just wants to work in a bookshop.

4. What was your history that led you to open a bookshop?

It all started with a conversation about Cheerios. I worked in the charity sector and then taught English in Barcelona where I read Keep The Aspidistra Flying. When I came back to the UK, I worked in London as a researcher. I hated the private sector and all those “watercooler conversations”. I had a guy sat next to me who was the perfect corporate person, he used to talk for ages on the Tesco Meal Deal. One day I was sizing up cereal in Waitrose and decided on Cheerios. I was sat at my desk eating them and he smiled at me and said “You love Cheerios don’t you” and it dawned on me that I was going to be Cheerios Joe for the rest of my life if I stayed here, no matter what I achieved, I was going to be the Cheerios guy.

5. You’re known for your LGBT bent, how has this taken shape?

I came from London and I needed a job. I was handing out my CVs around town and found myself at the edge of Canal St. I come from a religious, conservative background but I thought “Why not” and got a job in Via Fossa. All my friends were gay men and drag queens and it became my world. The LGBT angle affects people I love and owe so much to, people I wouldn’t be the person I am without.

6. Who are emerging and popular LGBT authors at the moment?

Essential reading is Andrew Sullivan “Love Undetecable”. He supported gay marriage in the 80s. You won’t find his work in Waterstones, he was a gay man in the 80s and early 90s and lost such a number of friends it was comparable with Vietnam. I don’t have that experience which is fascinating to me. Dan Savage is also another good writer.

“The Miseducation of Cameron Post” (Emily M Danforth) is about a girl who is sent to live with her aunt after her parents die.

7. With the current political climate, do you think there will be an upsurge for political works or a time of censorship?

People don’t have the choice but to be informed. The days of the news just being on in the background are gone. What concerns me is the rise of fake news and alternative facts. We don’t stock bullshit in here, it’s well informed and makes you think. In the last year, a lot of things happened that people didn’t think would happen. Donald Trump is like some Simpsons sketch.

8. Who is your favourite author?

Christopher Hitchens, Sam Harris, Anne Applebaum, Nick Cohen and Jung Chang.

9. What are your aspirations as a bookshop?

To accumulate various places all over. I have seen a fabulous place in Barcelona. I want to build community hubs, a great experience where you can have a drink. We had our first book club here yesterday which was wonderful. We have about 50-60 people who I recognise and recognise what they like. A girl comes in once a week and the other day I was ordering and I knew she would like something so I ordered it, ready for her.

10. Do you offer an online offering?

The website is launching soon (www.aspidistrabooks.com) with a new logo and we will be getting back into events. I have so many ideas that I have to note them down and concentrate on one at a time.

11. Will you be doing LGBT Art Fair or Literature Festival this year?

I am definitely interested in doing that. I’d like to be involved in Sparkle and would love a stall at Pride.

If you’re bored of being told what to read by Waterstones or Amazon, Aspidistra Books can be found upstairs in the Great Northern Warehouse, why not drop in for a glass of wine and come out with a ton of new books. That’s my kind of shopping trip.

By Chris Park for Canal St Online

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story published on  Thu, 16 Feb 2017