02-09-2022

56a Infoshop

At what seems like the centre of a maze, within a council estate a short walk away from Elephant and Castle, in South London, is a radical anarchist bookshop, social centre, and food co-op that contains within it an ever-expanding peek into the history of left-wing social movements.

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The origins of the Infoshop trace back to the 1880s, when it existed as an old corner shop and bakery which stood as the commercial unit at the end of a block within the Pullens council estate, in the borough of Southwark. During the 1970s, the borough had already seen an extensive mismanagement of properties, which in turn contributed to the development and swift organisation of squatting culture in the area. The council attempted to demolish the estate but tenants invited squatters to help save their homes. By 1988, the same corner shop and bakery was empty and had been occupied to make a food co-op called Fareshares, which is still nestled alongside the Infoshop today. Within a year of opening Fareshares, the council took them to court, and they agreed to negotiate upon an acceptable rent. Communication then broke down over the next 12 years. In 2003, they asked the Infoshop to start paying rent, which they do now, with a negotiation every five years.

The exterior to Fairshare and the 56a Infoshop (Image c/o the 56a Infoshop Archives)

In 1991, Chris had, along with two other people, moved to Southwark and asked the food co-op if they had space for a shelf to share some anarchist literature. In response, they were offered a room for their perusal. He had once visited a radical literature reading room while travelling in America and the impression it left upon him inspired the creation of a similar space in London. So, when the room was offered, it seemed natural to follow through with the idea of an open access reading room.

He had known of the estate since 1986, when the tenements were verging on dereliction. The Pullens Buildings were no longer composed of social housing, but surrounded by the inviting and manicured Victorian houses of the estate. Today, roughly 60 percent of the council homes are private; the demography of the area within which the Infoshop resides has profoundly changed. The general decline of public space for communal use in London can be observed through the genealogy of the history of squatting culture, which in itself has spanned across all corners of the city. The way in which privatisation changes the subjectivities of people, their sense of belonging is tied to ownership, property, and exclusivity, is evident in the increasing difficulty to preserve the commons across the UK, urban and otherwise. Chris is one of the last squatters within the Infoshop. When he arrived, there were squatted cafes, studios, workshops, and food co-ops, all of which he says had meant that he experienced the city in a totally different way than is the norm today. In places like Archway, or Limehouse, one merely went along to centres, gigs, just places where, as he puts it, young people could do different things that were not commercial. People went everywhere across the city to simply meet others, do things, perhaps experiment, and just live.

Squatting was criminalised in residential buildings in 2012, going from being a civil to criminal offence. The rapidly changing cityscape, propelled by massive investment from foreign investors, meant that nothing could be empty anymore. The footprints of properties in London had become too valuable. The Infoshop became increasingly important. More than ever, it was a place for squatters to meet, reconvene, share leads, and seek legal advice. A list of potential uninhabited spaces would be written in pen and paper, the documents being edited over and over again, as the situation changed. The influx of contemporary knowledge combined with the evaluation of strategies that once worked had to keep up with the changing landscape and changing stakes. ‘It is increasingly difficult to take the same risks now’, Chris says, ‘The large list of such documents would be empty today’.

The Infoshop does not indulge in depicting itself as a final bastion for resistance, and instead has consistently maintained itself as a space from which more diverse forms of resistance and organisation can grow. 

Archival resources, from pamphlets and posters through to books (Image c/o Nivedita Nair)

While the primary tendency of the space, the collective, and the people who visit it is anarchist in nature, the archive itself spans a vast range of different, intersecting, and contradicting radical ideologies. Chris supposes that they have at least 1500 books, 60,000 ‘bits of other stuff’, including badges, posters, zines, etc. Leaflets have been at the core of their collection. As one of the easiest physical means to produce and proliferate information, they also tend to be delicate to touch. Tending to a hoard of fragile material has also made it difficult to focus on a potential catalogue, and their digital archive is an ever-evolving work in progress. The people who had built the place were all squatters, they had all the time in the world. Now, the collective is subject to their own time constraints. ‘We all suffer from what’s outside the door too’, Chris says. Reproducing labour is not easy anymore, very little time is afforded to be socio-politically active, such is the perpetual crises of the cost of living. And yet, despite not having the extent of means or expertise that would be ideal for archival work, the Infoshop has always attracted people who are passionate about the impetus to preserve, in whatever ways they can.

‘Being in a room full of stuff forces people to turn around and ask another person about what they are looking for, which may prompt the other person to also think, and suggest to maybe look here, maybe look there. This brings about an encounter between the two people, but also between what the person may zero in on and the items that surround it,’ says Chris. For him, the social side of the place is catalysed by these very encounters. The archive began in the late 1980s, but once the internet arrived, the Infoshop evolved in its accumulation of material. Magazines and other published materials would be sent to one corner of the world, and received from another, but this physical exchange has significantly reduced. Open access also risks content being divorced from the context of their production. Chris explains,

‘Imagine you pull out a magazine from the 1970s about the cost of living, inflation, wages, organising strikes, you can feel that the labour that went into the bulletin is intense, unlike, say, a blog post. When you hold that piece of paper, you are plugging into the embodied spirit of the people who are trying to spread the word.’

People now do bring things in, and that has become part of the participation and encounter building that the Infoshop focuses on.

The Infoshop inverts the norms of what an archive or a museum should be, by showing what it can be instead. Indeed, many archives in the world suffer from a lack of funding and having very scarce resources, rendering an institution specifically meant for remembering to be ultimately forgotten. Those that remain do not welcome the kind of conflict or debate about their materials, and work upon the premise that only the institution can participate in (re)building history. A non-hierarchical, inviting, open structure that the Infoshop adheres to is an example of how an archive is a constant making and remaking of history, and a lesson in how the past is shaped not only by the authority of the four walls in which it is contained, but by the people who come to read and discuss it. The interactive, encounter focus of the archive is also driven by what Chris identifies as, the waning interest in active organisation around ‘bread and butter’ issues. Places like the Infoshop, then, become crucial in showing us how to imagine a better world, by showing us how our predecessors did, time and again. 

Fareshares, the food co-op that also runs from within 56a Crampton Street (Image c/o Nivedita Nair)

The values of an archive aside, the resistance to our times that the Infoshop facilitates also comes from simply being a place where people can come and be affirmed by other people that our world is flawed, that they are not crazy for thinking that, and not crazy for wanting it to be better.

Contribution

This article and some of the accompanying photographs are the work of Nivedita Nair.

Additional imagery was sourced from the 56a Infoshop archives. Our thanks go to Chris and the wider Infoshop team for providing access to the space. For more information about their work, please click here.

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