Close
News / 12 September, 2013

Centerprise – the radical past of a much missed Hackney institution

Iconic bookshop and cultural centre closed its doors last year but had a remarkable history, finds Dominic Simpson

A illustration of Centerprise as it looked in the 1970s. The image was provided by Ken Worpole

A illustration of Centerprise as it looked in the 1970s. The image was provided by Ken Worpole

Iconic Dalston bookshop and community centre Centerprise closed late last year after Hackney Council seized its premises amid a bitter rental dispute.

This somewhat ignominious episode marked the closing chapter in the history of a place that was a hub for intellectual activity in the area in the 1970s and 1980s.

Centerprise began its life as a bookshop and café in Dalston Lane circa 1971. It is amazing to think now, given their proliferation in Hackney, but at that time there were virtually no independent bookshops in the borough.

My father Robin Simpson was involved in Centerprise for most of the 1970s.

He recalls: “We were told in 1970 that a bookshop would never work in the East End because East Enders didn’t read.

“Well, we proved them wrong. The bookshop more or less broke even. It didn’t make a lot of money, but I believe it didn’t make a loss.”

In those days whole rows of empty houses stood on some streets in Hackney.

Author Ken Worpole, who was also involved in Centerprise during the late 1970s, remembers: “The whole of Dalston Lane had been scheduled for demolition.”

Centerprise later moved to the Kingsland High Street premises where it was based until its demise last year.

In its heyday the bookshop also contained a coffee bar and ran various youth activities such as chess clubs and drama clubs.

There was a reading project, which taught adult literacy, and a publishing project, where local people wrote their autobiographies, as well as a legal advice centre.

Like a number of organisations in the late 1970s and early 1980s – Geoff Travis’ Rough Trade label springs to mind – Centerprise was operated as a collectively-run enterprise as much as a commercial business.

It attempted to capture something of the spirit of Karl Marx’s ‘For each according to their needs’ approach.

Everyone was on equal pay and rotated duties.

‘Lively counter-culture’

“It was a cooperative”, explains my father, “and so we all had the same rates of pay. It had all the benefits and disadvantages that characterised cooperatives.”

Rebecca O’Rourke, now a lecturer at Leeds University, was also involved in Centerprise during the 1980s, joining through her involvement with the Federation of Women Writers and Community Publishers.

“Centerprise was a hub for Hackney life”, she says. “It was a cross-cultural space – the publishing and writing projects worked with mixed groupings of men and women, with people who were straight, lesbian, gay, and from a variety of races. Identity politics were strong when I joined the collective, and there were issues about race and sexuality which were sometimes very confrontational amongst staff.

Ken Worpole recalls: “It was a heady time and there were lots of books about alternative culture and ideas, lots of interest in music and politics. It was very much part of what was happening in Hackney at the time in terms of the borough’s very lively counter-cultural scene.”

While the publishing arm of Centerprise would turn out to be its most commercially successful venture, the venue was also a meeting point for organisations and writers’ groups from all over East London, from Irish nationalists to feminist and lesbian groups.

Sheltering from Augusto Pinochet’s brutal regime at that time, Chilean exiles in London would meet at Centerprise.

However, it would be misleading to brand Centerprise as just a hang-out for hippies, intellectuals, and all the non-mainstream groups of the time.

The local Communist Party, for example, didn’t meet there, and the Labour Party – then still staunchly on the Left – nonetheless viewed Centerprise with suspicion.

Drugs and anti-social activity were not tolerated.

End of an era

The pressures of running a collective were not easy to bear, which may explain why its golden days eventually came to an end, taking its toll on many involved.

The move to Kingsland High Street would lead to the organisation ultimately becoming more formal and hierarchical.

O’Rourke remembers: “We lived the work and the politics of community activism.

“It was one of the most hardest and stimulating times of my life – and it was tough for people with families. Most people who left did so because they were exhausted”.

Worpole, meanwhile, says: “I think you have to remember that it was part of a much wider community arts movement. Apart from Centerprise, you had Freeform, Hoxton Hall, Chats Palace, The Factory… There were a lot of community arts projects, very committed to multiculturalism, very committed to popular creativity.

“The idea at the time was cultural democracy, and I think those ideas are still very important.

“To have all these different things under one roof – nobody had done that before. It was a magic mixture, if you like”.

In more recent times, Centerprise contained a bookshop specialising in Afro-Caribbean literature and history, accompanied by a Caribbean restaurant and a space for community workshops.

Up until its closure it was paying an annual rent of just £520 (£10 per week) – a situation that Hackney Council was dissatisfied with.

These days, the area has become a strip of nightlife, full of revellers queuing for clubs.

The houses off the main roads, the Hackney Peace Carnival Mural on Dalston Lane, and the Rio Cinema are all that really remain as symbols of the Dalston of the 1970s.

The Kingsland High Street premises that housed Centerprise were, briefly, a ‘psychic medium’ centre, but this now appears to have disappeared.

The walls have been painted black and the shutters are down.

No sign pointing to the building’s previous history remains.

On the Record Community Interest Company is developing a project to record the history of Centerprise’s publishing project and create a permanent public archive.

They want to know how you think Centerprise’s work in publishing and community history should be remembered. They are collecting comments on their blog justanotherbookshop and can be contacted at info@on-the-record.org.uk or on 0758 365 6338.

/ 12 September, 2013

19 Comments on “Centerprise – the radical past of a much missed Hackney institution

Wendy Pettifer
September 19, 2013 at 4:06 pm

Just read article re Centreprise in Hackney Citizen. I worked there from 1980 – 89 and would love to be involved in a project about it. I have lots of old photos, info re campaigns nearly all the publications. I worked in the Advice Centre but also involved in all the other activities including the Writers’ Workshop.
I now work at Hackney Law Centre – do contact me

Stephen Schwarz
October 6, 2013 at 7:49 pm

We were Expression in Kingsbury Road and printed lots of the Centerprise books. Please contact us if we can help.

Chris Huculak
November 6, 2013 at 11:18 am

When GLC funding for community groups in the London boroughs kicked in (around 1982), our group “Barking and Dagenham Link” used Centreprise as a model for our resource centre.

We opened up a shopfront with a cafe, books, printing equipment, a state of the art “CP/M” micro-computer and hosted campaigning groups like “Barking and Dagenham Health Emergency” which supported the Barking Hospital Domestics in their 18 month long industrial dispute.

Unfortunately, the organisation didn’t have the diverse range of funding that Centreprise had and it shut it doors upon the abolition of the GLC. But I remain grateful to Centreprise for providing a living template. So sad to read of its demise.

Rosa Vilbr
November 16, 2013 at 5:06 pm

Hi Stephen and Chris,

If you would like to stay in touch with the project as we get it going, please do join our mailing list via http://on-the-record.org.uk/ or send us an email at info@on-the-record.org.uk . I can’t see another way to send you a message apart from replying to your comment.

Thanks,

Rosa Vilbr
On the Record

Brooke Walford
November 24, 2013 at 3:34 am

Hi Stephan Schwarz, in 1971 I frequented Centerprise a lot and drew a poster for it with text by Tom Holt –Wilson and Glen, a New Yorker who started the place. I seem to remember I worked for Expression for a short time back then. Do you still have that poster?
Just curious as I’m attempting some writing based on early my early 70s experiences.

Thanks,

Brooke Walford

Josie
December 24, 2013 at 9:15 am

So sad to read about the demise of Centerprise. Centerprise was a great place for me back in the early 70’s and I started frequenting the place during the first week when it first opened. Brookie Walford – we lived in next-door bedsits on the top floor in the same house in Graham Road. A lot of people used to play chess in Centerprise and there was an active music scene, with musicians like John Lockhart and Costas Kyriakides along with Dave Boldinger who organised the Melanie UK fan club. Happy days I will always remember.

Brooke Walford
December 29, 2013 at 12:56 pm

I was there in 1971 and did a poster for centerprise. Does any one know Glen Thompson or Tom Holt-Wilson? Glen, from new York founded the place and Tom helped out.

Brooke Walford
December 29, 2013 at 1:01 pm

Hi Josie! Yes I remember now the Graham Road bed sits.
Brooke Walford

Josie
January 12, 2014 at 1:28 am

Hi Brookie! Nice to know you’re still around! You in Canterbury now? I remember Glen, and also Anthony, who was also on the Centerprise Committee, who later became a Hackney councillor. Duncan Campbell and his friends were often around and used to use the office facilities at Centerprise.

Anthony Sully
March 4, 2014 at 8:29 pm

I designed the original Centreprise cafe/bookshop for the then Director Glenn Thompson in1970. His then wife Margaret was a friend of my wife’s Anne when we were students at the Royal College of Art in the early 1960’s. Glenn died of cancer in 2001 aged 60.

Dave Forbes
May 27, 2014 at 11:07 pm

blimey..big time nostalgia this..a pal and I attended Ken Worpole’s creative writing group at Centerprise in the early ’80s..great stuff..I remember my mate writing and reading out a wonderful piece describing, I think it was, his first day working at the docks some 30 years before..so good I was embarrassed to read mine out..and didn’t..damned shame that Centerprise has closed (only just found out; I now live in Edinburgh)..due to a “rental issue”..different times..then and now..capitalist culture – best that money can buy

Jenny Argante
September 1, 2014 at 7:03 am

Hi, I remember the heady days long ago when Centerprise started up, and I was in one of the first Women and Words groups in the London Women’s Centre. I thought its principles and practices an excellent model, and increasingly the arts are being set aside as not relevant to society. I have always deemed them important because any form of creative expression allows us to explore and discover who we are and what we want and because creativity, in whatever form it takes, has always been the foundation for new thinking and innovation. I liked what they did in giving a voice to the unheard, and remember being involved in a project where adult illiterates told a story from their life, we wrote this out ‘as was’, turned it into a set of books, and taught them reading through their own words. What pride it gave them to see their name on ‘a real book’ and to understand the value placed on what they contributed. I also remember many publications of a heartfelt and thought-provoking nature on women’s liberation, being gay and from those in rehab or struggling with mental illnesses or emotional trauma. It was uplifting, energising and I am so sad to see it go – at a time when we’re talking about setting up a community publishing centre in Auckland. We needed an Andrew Carnegie of the 21st century to keep it going, I expect. I shall certainly order the book when it comes out. A search of the British Library’s union catalogue under Centerprise might produce some examples of what was published there, though it was much more than a service for book publishing; it was an ideas exchange, a support service, a social centre and an agent of change.
Jenny Argante
Tauranga, New Zealand-Aotearoa

Unfortunately I'm Anonymous (I'm wary of the Nation of Islam hooligans)
September 4, 2014 at 9:16 am

Thanks Dominic Simpson for a balanced article. Centerprise was never the “Black community” centre some had claimed it to be, it was always a community centre, embracing people from all cultures, all religions (and none) and all sexualities.

Its bookshop was indicative of the clientele, carrying not only a brilliant selection of Black literature and history, but also local East End history, one of the best collections of LGBTQ literature this side of the capital, Buddhist teachings and paraphernalia, Jewish Anarchist/Marxist periodicals, you name it, you’d find here (and possibly nowhere else).

I think it is important to support one’s local bookshop and, in my days at college, if Centerprise didn’t have a book in stock, I’d get them to order for me.

Unfortunately, after a change in personnel a few years ago, all the LGBTQ literature was unceremoniously dumped and trashed, along with other diverse literature. I encountered open hostility from a member of staff when I tried to order a gay-studies book. And, just as I wouldn’t like to use a venue that stocked BNP or National Front books, I didn’t feel comfortable visiting Centerprise anymore, after finding they were stocking Nation of Islam literature (which is unquestionably hostile to all people of Jewish origin and all LGBTQ people).

If Centerprise had made a concerted effort to return to its origins as a community centre, being inclusive and embracing (almost!) everyone in Hackney, that would have been great. But it continued down the path of intolerance, being oppressive, homophobic and racist. Hackney Council had no business subsidising this “centre of hate” with our council tax funds!

Now that unpleasant chapter is over, it’s nice to dwell on its glorious beginnings!

Dan Freeman
October 25, 2014 at 2:57 am

So nice to hear many benefitted from the Centerprise Trust’s services to the community since its founding in 1970-1, but in recent times its sad to say the place had become a base for numerous police actions and undercover operations against black community groups with full knowledge of the managment who were more interested in selling quack cures for cancer called Mirandina and bootleg conspiracy theory dvds than books.
Hackney borough council made the right decision.
Tis a pity the elderly jamaican lady who used to always sit in the cafe and the old jewish guy with dementure won’t have anywhere to rest there feet.

Vicenti
January 20, 2015 at 2:37 am

Hello there Josie.
I remember you along with others, Glenn, Tom, Anthony, from the Dalston Lane days.

Vicenti
January 20, 2015 at 2:44 am

Remembering Centerprise

Bishopsgate Institute on Saturday 24 January.
Launch A – Hackney Autobiography:
new project remembering Centerprise, a unique cultural ipinstitution that operated in Hackney from 1971 – 2012.
This event will bring people who remember Centerprise’s work together to share memories and writing from the time and discuss its work and impact.

When: 24 January 2014, 2 – 5 pm.

Where: Bishopsgate Institute, 230 Bishopsgate, London EC2M 4QH. Venue is wheelchair accessible.

What: Free public event for all those who remember Centerprise. Bring photographs, publications, documents from the time and your memories. Refreshments provided.
All are welcome.

Josie
September 21, 2015 at 9:49 pm

@Anthony Sully >Glenn died of cancer in 2001 aged 60.

So sorry to hear that, Anthony. Glenn was a really nice guy – caring and had time for everyone. RIP, Glenn, you will never ben forgotten. xxx

Josie
September 21, 2015 at 9:57 pm

@Unfortunately I’m Anonymous

>If Centerprise had made a concerted effort to return to its origins as a community centre, being inclusive and embracing (almost!) everyone in Hackney, that would have been great.

Absolutely! I wholeheartedly agree. Centerprise started off as being all-inclusive and was so for many years, even after the move from Dalston Lane to Kingsland High Street, and all through the 80’s and 90’s – all activities were still reflecting the all-inclusive character and origins of Centerprise.

If Centerprise would ever return to Hackney, I would move back to London in an instant. It certainly meant a great deal to me, when I used to go there.

Tom Wilson
November 25, 2016 at 12:43 pm

Hi Brooke. Good to hear of you. I have a spare copy of the poster which I would be pleased to send you if you get in touch. Tom Holt-Wilson (tr.wilson2@ntlworld.com)

Comment

GET OUR WEEKLY DIGEST

Sign up for Hackney news straight to your inbox with our weekly Friday digest - also featuring special offers, competitions and more
Email address
First Name
Last Name
Secure and Spam free...