Lost London – Compendium Books

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!

About mistertrippy

Stewart Home was born in south London in 1962. His mother Julia Callan-Thompson was a showgirl and club hostess. He has never held down a regular job for more than a few months at a time. On those rare occasions when he's been forced to work, Home has taken employment as a factory labourer, agricultural labourer, shop assistant, office clerk and art class model. Deciding he didn't like working in factories as a teenager, Home pursued cultural and political interests, writing many books and participating in even more gallery exhibitions.
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43 thoughts on “Lost London – Compendium Books

  1. I re-read with interst [the bit at the top] sorry to hear sowemone so influential in your life is no longer here… i knew poeple when i was young who sussed tnat I had difficulty reading and they all worked in record shops – I would oredr all manner of crud [and they would top it up with all manner of other crud] it was fab… one bloke wore the same shirt for 2 years and the same sun glasses behind a ‘nameless’ shop where I got most crud … we were both getting into crazy record – the french New Rose label amd all that – it was great – i ordered tons french punk via that outlet from 76 to 79 – he knew i couldn’t speak french – and i didn’t care anyway coz i just liked the music… fancy a pogo ?
    http://youtu.be/-lWe_w6AeVw

  2. Caroline says:

    Hi Stewart,

    This is a great post. Thank you. Remember too, that the late great Liz Young worked at Compendium too. And I believe from what Peter told me that Nick Rochford does/did have a fearsome number of books in storage.

    Caro xx

  3. Jamie Sherry says:

    Nice piece Stewart. You were about 10-years ahead of me. Mike was a huge influence on me – his obituary page is here, and includes an entry from myself:

    http://www.petermanson.com/mike.htm

  4. douglas park says:

    any conspiracy theories behind the demise of compendium?

  5. mistertrippy says:

    No, it was just sales were falling (due to the chains and internet retailing) and they figured they might as well knock it on the head before they started making losses. And Nick who either owned the premises or the lease on them – possibly with Diana Gravill, I’m not sure – was going to make more money renting it out as a shoe shop….

    @ Jamie – thanks for the link. I’ve seen the page and your contribution before – it’s all good!

    @ Caroline – the first time I remember speaking to Liz was at the launch for my novel Pure Mania. She came up and introduces herself and we got on like a house on fire. I could never understand why I’d not got to know her years earlier….. And yes, Liz definitely told me about Nick’s books in storage (although I’m not sure if she was one of those who said they were in Virginia Water). She did, however, tell me many many stories about Nick…..

    @ Bryoni Submarine – let’s pogo a-go-go!

  6. raymond anderson says:

    That under the counter theory is almost as good as the george harrison’s dealer being the receptionist at Apple story.

  7. Barry Graham says:

    Thanks for writing such a great piece. Mike was a force of nature, as was (and I assume still is) his brother John, who lived in Edinburgh when I lived there, and turned me on to a lot of books. When I left for the U.S., John handed me a copy of R.H. Blyth’s Zen in English Literature, which I still have.

  8. Ross Bradshaw says:

    For a lot of Compendium’s life I worked at Mushroom Bookshop in Nottingham. In those pre-internet days Compendium was probably our biggest competitor rather than the local shops. Being provincial we could only scratch the surface of the same sections carried by Compendium, and many of our specialist customers would “pick it up at Compendium next time they were down” if we did not have it in stock. I think, however, we were better at paying our bills than they were!

  9. Caroline says:

    @Ross I went to university in Nottingham and was a frequent visitor/shopper at mushroom books – I often wonder what happened to the place – I knew a few of the people who worked there too (from various groups and so on) – your name rings a bell Ross – are you on Facebook ? You can find me
    there – I am foggy sapphires – best wishes caroline

  10. Steve says:

    Didn’t Liz Young refer to drug dealing at Compendium in “Pandora’s Handbag”? In “A Riot of Their Own” by Johnny Green and Garry Barker (great book!) there’s a story about Mick Jones buying drugs from an unnamed Camden Town bookshop which is quite clearly Compendium, so it definitely went on.

    I really do miss that shop – pre-internet it was a portal into a magical world, like Rough Trade. Mike Hart was great (although I never knew his name back then) but some of the other staff didn’t exactly exude, er, personal warmth, especially the surly bloke who often served at the front.

    Then again, he was charm personified compared to Keith at Daddy Kool!

  11. mistertrippy says:

    Don’t have my copy of Pandora’s Handbag with me right now – and I can’t remember but my assumption would be you’re right because Liz was one of a number of people who told me drug dealing stories about Compendium. Had I realised (or at least remembered) there were other public sources for this – I couldn’t recall any – I might have been a bit less circumspect. Haven’t read A Riot Of Their Own… but let’s just say there are lot of drug dealing tales. I still need more convincing about the Baudrillard story… my memory is it supposedly took place around the same time as he was packing out the ICA, but if it was quite a bit earlier I guess it might be true… but I’m not fully convinced yet!

    @ Ross. I can only speak of my own experiences of selling stuff to Compendium but they were always very good about paying me. However, since there were clearly favoured customers (like me) who always got discounts, it may have been there were favoured suppliers who got paid promptly too. In the basement it was always sale or return, but if Mike knew I was short of money he would pay me upfront for stuff I brought it. My experiences of Compendium paying were 100% positive, absolutely no complaints. They were beyond perfect on this front with me.

  12. Jussi says:

    Used to get my hangman stuff, billy childish et al from there in the late 80’s. Good memories.

  13. Kim says:

    Good memories: it was at compendium that I first came across back copies of Vague.

  14. Richard says:

    It was the only real reason for ever going to Camden. I haven’t been to Camden since it closed… I liked all the nutty pamphlets in the political section downstairs.

  15. douglas park says:

    nutty pamphlets in camden? sounds like Suggs & Madness.

  16. Jonathan Brooker says:

    So sad to hear that Mike Hart is dead. I hadn’t realised, having lost touch when Compendium closed. Can’t count the books/writers he introduced me to over the years. I shall now go away and re-read some of them in his memory.

  17. Kellie Gillespie-Wright says:

    That shop was the making of me…

  18. mistertrippy says:

    It was an influential counter-institution – way more important than somethng that was more self-conscious about being like that such as the London Anti-University…..

  19. C. Vanneste says:

    aah compendium…worth the trip from Belgium once in awhile simply to buy books there. best memory : trying to buy the Burroughs box with Giorno-released material… the shopkeeper at the counter at the entrance refused to sell it because i could find it much cheaper across the street. the deal we made was i did to spent the money i saved at compendium.

  20. mistertrippy says:

    That would have been Mike Hart who knew all the record shop owners…. He probably had some deal with them to have an overpriced box set and then to get free records every time he sent people over to buy a cheaper one and spend the rest in Compendium… He would get me free records like The Sonics comp. when it came out on Ace, but that would have come via Rock On….. And while I liked the shop in Camden I thought the Rock On Record Stall in Soho Market (the market was closed down circa 1980) was way better!

  21. Steve says:

    Was there a time when Rock On was actually any good?! I always found it pretty depressing.

  22. mistertrippy says:

    I found the Soho Market stall very good in the late seventies. By comparison the Camden shop was always disappointing… but it had its moments and I used to go in to check it, although I found the other local record shops better.

  23. Richard Boon says:

    As an adolescent travelling to London from Leeds on occasion, Compendium was the go-to destination. Nice piece, btw.

  24. Andre Stitt says:

    Compendium and Normals Books in Baltimore – my favourite bookshops of all time.. I just loved Compendium, days spent there as a young beat-glam-punk in the late 70’s and then squatting in the 80’s..90’s…it was a dreadful day this great shop closed…I still have all these old bootleg cassette tapes they used to sell of Kerouac, Bukowski, Ginsberg, Gary Snyder etc..I also remember readings at the shop…Ian Breakwell…Ivor Cutler, Billy Childish..and the Scots guy who sat by the door and would take yer stuff on a sale a or return basis…great place where you could just hang out, talk, trade, read, plan a revolution, and not be hassled by ‘the man’…

  25. mistertrippy says:

    The Scots guy was Mike Hart (from Glasgow) – a top bloke for sure, as I point out above! And Normals is a great shop too! For those not in the know it’s somewhere you might have encountered Blaster Al Ackerman – I certainly did in the 1990s…

  26. Steve says:

    p75 of A Riot of Our Own:

    “I came within a whisker of getting busted while scoring for Mick in a book shop in north London, the sort that stocked imports, alternative comics; generally, books which WH Smith didn’t sell. But it had a greater atttaction for me. It was run by a drug dealer, who was living with an old friend of mine. My friend’s way of dealing with the world was to take to her bed for weeks at a time. She would hold court, popped up by pillows, in her nightdress. Mick knew I had access to these people. While Topper also used cocaine, he would go out and score for himself. But Mick wouldn’t even go to the corner shop for a pint of milk.
    [The shop gets raided while JG is scoring]
    With s flick of my fingers i pulled my stash from my pocket and flipped it into a stack of books.
    My friend appeared in her Chinese silk dressing gown and said I had been chatting with her. I was nothing to do with anything else. The owner took the rap for her and he got three years.”

    I take it that the unnamed woman is Liz Young… In fact I’m pretty sure now that there’s a review of this book in Pandora’s Handbag (!). Could the owner who went down be the same unfriendly bloke who also used to serve at the front later in the 80s? I guess it would explain a lot.

  27. Steve says:

    PS Re “He didn’t have a lot of time for the kids who came into the store solely to buy copies of On The Road” – ironically, in the bit which I omitted Johnny Green says that he slipped a copy of On the Road into his pocket on his way out just before the Drug Squad kicked their way in. Cosmic!

  28. mistertrippy says:

    Yes that would be Liz Young. She used to go out with Mick Jones…. She had lots of really funny stories to tell about The Clash. Typical is that when she first knew them they all lied about their age and took the piss out of her for being really old – and Strummer in particular. Later, of course, it turned out Strummer was just as old as Liz was. She had a good sense of humour and found this funny….. She plays the girl in Rude Boy who isn’t that interested in Ray Gange and wanders off from him….

    I was also aware of Nick’s busts but didn’t want to put them in the public domain if they weren’t there already… but as they are! He may have been the unfriendly guy you encounterred… I wouldn’t have called him unfriendly based on my experiences of him, cool sometimes but never gruff…. Anyway thanks for typing that stuff up from Johnny Green’s book… Liz used to talk about Johnny too, but not being into The Clash I’d never read the book…

    My guess would be the incident described took place before Mike Hart started working there. It is amazing how many kids did go in there just to get a copy of On The Road, or maybe other Kerouac books if they’d read that, and nothing else….

  29. Steve Davies says:

    I loved Compendium, always paid it a visit during my trips to that London in the early to mid 90s and always ended up buying loads of great stuff there.

  30. Steve says:

    I’ve just gone google-mental and found the following…

    According to John Williams’s obituary of Liz Young, The Clash song The Prisoner is actually about Nick Rochford (!):

    http://www.guardian.co.uk/news/2001/mar/23/guardianobituaries.books

    “the Prisoner lives in Camden Town
    selling revolution”

    Nick Rochford interviewed for Resonance about Compendium:

    http://resonancearchive1.org.uk/audio/wavelength/2008/Wavelength21Nov08.mp3

    And tragically I missed his 2008 talk on why book-selling was more profitable than drug-dealing:

    http://www.1968andallthat.net/node/125

    And here’s a great photo of the basement taken in 1973:

    http://www.flickr.com/photos/grepnold/4979191959/

    Love the comment: “the chap with the pipe is probably MI5!”

  31. Fergus Kelly says:

    Compendium was such a treasure trove. The end of an era when it shut down. I’d love to have heard that Robin Cook talk. Only came across his work via the recent re-issues, but was mightily impressed.

  32. Andre Stitt says:

    Ah, yes.. now I remember ..it was Mike Hart with his little cash desk at the front door… great guy, always had a chat with him… Sorry to hear he’s left us…

  33. Steve says:

    Now that I’ve heard it, that Resonance link actually *is* Nick Rochford’s Conway Hall talk, rather than an interview… or at least the first 25 minutes of it, anyway, where he talks about setting up Compendium. Interesting stuff.

  34. mistertrippy says:

    Thanks for keeping us up to speed. I haven’t had time to listen to that yet but will do in due course.

  35. KW says:

    Ah, Compendium…..

  36. Brian Kavanagh says:

    It’s sad to find out that Mike Hart died. Didn’t know his name but I remember his help and love of books. I was an eighteen year old, back in London and I bought or just spent an hour or so reading bits of books in compendium. No one ever objected. What a great shop.

  37. Dusan Jakovljevic says:

    I hardly been to Camden since they closed. Combination of dark magick upstairs and revolutionary faith downstairs… where else in one place one could buy Crowley and Camatte, or Spare and Sanguenetti. Revolution is an occult affair.

  38. Steve says:

    I don’t know about that – the Situationists took a dim view of “mystical creatins”!

  39. Steve says:

    Er… only cretins can’t spell “cretins”.

  40. mistertrippy says:

    I always loved that turn of phrase where they as a put down they say ‘…like all right-wing mystical cretins they exude the rotten egg smell of the idea of God’. But what Duscan says is true of Compendium…. there were some real splits between different departments…..

  41. Dusan says:

    Occult had an important influence on both sitiationist ideas and methods. Western occultism which desected the universe and separated god from its mechanics, provided for one of the roots of situationism, via marxism and via surrealists. this is all old story. I remember even Prigent discovering those occult roots of situationism…

  42. mistertrippy says:

    Obviously since surrealism had an influence on the SI and that was one of a number of routes from which occult discourse fed into situationist praxis….I still laugh my ass off over that headline they used to announce a development in sub-atomic physics – “The Cathars Were Right”!

  43. Gary Bell says:

    Good – and essential – post. Mike had a huge influence on me in the latest 80s and early 90s. Still have my copy of Harry Crews’ ‘Naked in Garden Hills’ – xeroxed from Mike’s. (he lent it me when he heard I was struggling to find it for a college essay; didn’t know me, of course, just handed it to me one day in the shop: “Just bring it back when you’ve finished with it”). RIP Mike.