The Albion Beatnik: forging wilderness out of empire

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Arts related People, Places and Publications within the good ol’ Oxford bubble. 

This week we chat to the delightful Dennis Harrison- founder of The Albion Beatnik bookstore and Oxford resident .The Guardian recently ran a feature piece on the store following a viral image.

‘We think the internet is great, but the written word is better; we abhor democracy and adore anarchy (in a sort of postmodern, dodecophonic sort of way); we think you should buy a book because you want to read it, not because it is cheap, although this doesn’t give publishers or booksellers the license to overcharge (unless they can get away with it). The shop has a no petting, diving or bombing policy (unless with the owner). And if you are genuine and enthusiastic, you are always welcome.’ 

Dennis welcomes me into the store early and the place already exudes a quiet energy. Artists with suitcases pop in and disappear into the basement. I’m given coffee and we get stuck into a discussion one third interview, one third chat and one third glancing at the bookshelves in glee.

The bookshop has had some acclaim recently including an article in The Guardian. I wanted to know why Dennis chose Oxford and how his special breed of bookshop came about. ‘I’ve always had bookshops, and I could see that the writing was on the wall for general bookshops, so I decided to change horse. I’d always wanted a bookshop in Oxford.’ For The Albion Beatnik the settings are ideal, a spectacular city with artists constantly passing through, alongside a loyal following of local residents.

Dennis so named ‘The Albion Beatnik’ in order to allude to its internal goings on. ‘I couldn’t have called it ‘The Jazz Café’’ but in naming it ‘Beatnik’ the innards become clear. Free range poetry and jazz, the spirit of the American Beat Generation. This blend for Dennis is an antidote ‘at the moment bookshops are sunk in the water – we have to reinvent it.’

The Albion Beatnik hosts readings, workshops, jazz nights and other events most nights of the week yet they still manage to pull in large audiences regularly – a feat difficult in a city of Costa and Waterstones. In his recent ‘Month of Poetry’ Dennis received roughly 20-40 audience members each night reaching heights of 65. Despite the numbers, however, Dennis admits to it all being ‘very ad hoc’ befitting the charm and casual nature of the place.

I ask finally about the gorgeous small notebooks which caught my eye on the way in. Lucie Forejtova’s beautiful hand bound books are sold in store and she hosts workshops on their making. Their delicacy and craftsmanship seem to highlight further the Beatnik’s true allegiance to creative excursions and the written word in a purer form than one might find on Amazon Books. ‘She’s integral to the shop and sums up the ethos of the store.’

I ask Dennis how he would compare The Albion Beatnik to other independent bookshops such as the iconic ‘Shakespeare &Co’. ‘Well no, I think that’s flattering, but I see it as just this bookshop’. A grounded and enthusiastic space such as this shouldn’t be compared. Its genuineness should be praised – Jericho, Oxford here holds a prize space. Like Beat Poet Snyder’s dream, Harrison has, in the realm of bookstores, created ‘wilderness out of empire’.

Search ‘The Albion Beatnik’ on Facebook to find out more. For Lucie Forejtova’s work visit www.immaginacija.com/.

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