Compendium Books in Camden Town opened in August 1968 but I didn’t start visiting the shop until the end of the seventies. The first person I got to know well at Compendium was Mike Hart. Mike ran the fiction and poetry section from the early 1980s until the store closed just over a decade ago now. I was 14 years younger than Mike and about 15 years after we met, he told me he knew I was okay when he started at the shop because I was into William Burroughs novels rather than Jack Kerouac books (this was of course before interest in Burroughs soared from the late-eighties onwards). He didn’t have a lot of time for the kids who came into the store solely to buy copies of On The Road. Mike was the last in a series of older friends who turned me on to new authors when I was still young relatively young – and like a good number of those who preceded him, he’d been to art school. He always discounted the books I bought and often got me free copies of records I wanted from his innumerable contacts in the music business.
By the time I became acquainted with Mike I’d already read plenty of dada, surrealist, nouveau roman and beat literature – but he got me checking out the likes of Boris Vian and Jim Thompson. Mike would find cheap English language editions of books by writers he felt I should have read, and offer to order them for me. He’d also introduce me to countercultural figures like Jeff Nuttall whenever I happened to be in the shop at the same time as them. When I started getting books published, Mike put them in the window…. and hosted a number of my book launches.
The best event I had at Compendium was the publication party for my first novel Pure Mania in 1989. I mentioned 100 Pipers whiskey repeatedly in the book, and so the company very kindly sent along a couple of crates. Many of those present got completely smashed – it was a top night precisely because those who were there remember very little of it! I went to many events at Compendium but the most memorable (aside from my own, of course) was a Robin Cook (AKA Derek Raymond) reading. Cookie spent so long talking about his book that there wasn’t time for him to actually read from it. I was massively impressed!
But there was a lot more to Compendium than the front of house fiction section. I never really investigated the occult selection at the back of the shop, but I was very familiar with the politics and theory departments in the basement. In the eighties the Compendium basement was a fantastic mash up of the ultra-left and the postmodern – a virtual battlefield in which Guy Debord slugged it out with Paul Virilio. While I got to know those toiling in the basement – Paul Hammond, Phil Derbyshire and Andrew Burgin among others – like everyone else, I missed the Compendium theory crew’s most legendary event, a Jean Baudrillard book signing for which not a single punter turned up! I once went to a Jeff Nuttall poetry launch with only two other members of the public present, but most of the many Compendium events I caught were well attended.
Moving on from the apocryphal tale about Baudrillard, there are other Compendium stories I used to hear regularly without ever knowing whether they were true. The front runner in this field must be the claim that in the early days Compendium only survived financially because the shop dealt dope under the counter. While this seems plausible, I never saw any evidence of drug dealing going on during the many hours I spend in the shop (although, to be fair, supposedly this practice had been discontinued before I started going there). Equally legendary was shop founder Nick Rochford’s lock up in which I was told he kept two copies of every publication that ever passed through Compendium. If the story was true then Rochford must have had a book collection to die for – although the fact that his publication store was allegedly located in Virginia Water of all places, made me doubt the veracity of the tale!
Last time I checked the old Compendium premises at 240 Camden High Street was a shoe shop. Mike Hart died from cancer in 2002 at the age of 54. In the brief period between Compendium closing and Mike’s death, I’d pop in and see him at the crime bookshop Murder One where he’d gone to work. He seemed happy there and it was a shock when I was told he’d died.
And while you’re at it don’t forget to check – www.stewarthomesociety.org – you know it makes (no) sense!