Atticus Books – The Friendly Face of the Avant Garde

We’ve all needed guidance, at some time, through an uncharted new world of developing obsession. A record shop, a nightclub, a bookshop, a cafe: some kind of locus where we’ll either find a way into it or boil our heads entirely. Or both, if we’re really lucky. Thankfully, the culturally restless were well catered for in the Liverpool of my youth.

Much as I’d loved Sefton Park library as a child, by September 1981 it was all over the place. There were thousands of ancient educational curios on shelves that went to the ceiling, many of which had fascinated me in my youth, but now I was 17, and the hippest kid on my block! I was steeping myself in moody French Lit in school, and looking forward to reading Sartre amid stuttering love affairs in black and white. What use did I have now for the Stanley Gibbons’ Stamp Catalogue of 1958? I had a yen for a challenge, something that would sit comfortably with the growing pile of freaky records.

“Do you have any William Burroughs?”

“I’ll check for you, but I’m not too sure, only I’ve heard he’s a bit racy, y’know. Oh, here’s one, Naked Lunch. Will that do you?”

Er, probably. I was too polite to refuse by this point, and left with a book that I would find entrancingly bizarre, grimly hilarious, tediously incomprehensible and nauseatingly scabrous – not to say a bit racy – all on the same page! Where was it supposed to be taking me? If only there was a place where I could talk about this kind of thing, where neither I nor anybody else would feel daft…

There was. There was Atticus bookshop, at the top of Hardman Street in central Liverpool. It was next to the Philharmonic pub, and equidistant from Ye Cracke and the Everyman Bistro, as if sitting on some ley line of cultural magic. Going in there reminded me of going to Probe Records for the first time a few years earlier, an experience which had taught me that I did not, after all, know everything. Or even very much. Atticus had all the fascinations a pretentious sixth former like me could have been dreaming of, and even more that he hadn’t had time to dream of just yet. Poetry, drama, Beat writing, the wickedly avant garde, even some stuff I’d heard of. All of human endeavour was sitting on those shelves, together with a little subhuman endeavour, to err on the side of caution. But above all, it just felt, well, lovely! Nobody was going to shout at you if you hadn’t thought hard enough about the human condition. And they knew full well that Burroughs was, indeed, a bit racy.

I would never have time to cover the whole range of the shop, which seemed to have been stocked in glaring defiance of all traditional business wisdom, and could well have looked like a different beast to everybody who came in. But the esoteric chatter of unfamiliar writers harmonised with the publishers that sang to me like tiny and beloved independent record labels: City Lights, Calder, New Directions, often in the most beautiful editions, enchanting and forbidding in equal measure. Granted, they weren’t all in everybody’s price range – £3.99 seemed a lot to an impecunious teenager, when a pint in the Everyman Bistro cost 80p. But it seemed for every expensive Calder Burroughs there was a between-pay-days Panther edition of Jack Kerouac for half the price. Or you could even have an eighties-friendly Biff postcard for 20p.

To be honest, though, I was led there by the music of the post-punk era, some of which was couching itself in literary allusion. Awkward music and impenetrable books – Atticus felt like the meeting of both worlds! But it swiftly became apparent that many had arrived here on a different cultural bus, and that I was shopping alongside people who had long been drawn to rule-breaking art. My French Lit. teacher, no stranger to the shop, was too busy reading difficult poetry to notice Echo and the Bunnymen’s nod to Camus in “Happy Death Men.” How could he have missed that one, I wondered. And how was I supposed to know that Adrian Henri, the Jarry-loving Mersey poet and free jazz fan, had never even heard of Pere Ubu? Jesus tonight, just how much rule-breaking art was out there? Didn’t I already know everything? No…? Oh no, not again…

Thank you, Mr. Burroughs, yes, that’s “Henri” with an “i.”

Damn it all! So punk hadn’t been the Year Zero of personal awakening after all, just mine, and life before it wasn’t just a woolly world of brown rice and red leb. Atticus was showing me a wider picture of Liverpool’s venerable cultural milieu, to which it had been and would remain pivotal: old hippies, new hippies, poets, playwrights, activists, tosspots, frantics, mystics and dipsticks and every other stripe of life that might be encompassed and nurtured by such a boggling spectrum of artistic pursuit. This was to present me with a lifetime of rapt absorption, gradual assimilation and occasional perplexity, at whatever pace suited the exigencies of the many years ahead. Trips to Atticus were great, throwing open the gate to the uncharted cultural woodlands, but soon it fell to me to wend my own path to the most enchanting thickets. On top of that, now I had a social life, parties to go to, and girls to chat up, and – “ooh, nice Robbe-Grillet!” – friends with bookshelves to check out. And some of those peculiar punky records were starting to sound a bit old, truth be told. Maybe they’d be back…

Crowds flock to Atticus to see William S. Burroughs in 1982, a bad hair year.

Atticus kept on opening people’s eyes, to literature, to poetry, to counter-cultural activity and more besides. What greater event than William Burroughs’ instore book signing in 1982, when the maven of the monstrous, the man who had taken an unflinching scalpel to the nightmare excesses of the century, simply breezed in and charmed the pants off everybody in a crowded room? What event more eye-opening than seeing him give a reading that same night, shedding a clear new light upon his intractable work and teaching a gormless teenager to appreciate the cauterisingly avant garde on its own terms. This was a life-long lesson, courtesy of a shop that offered a profound retail experience! And, as unlikely as it may seem, it still prevails, on a main drag in Central Lancaster – a real and inviting bookshop with Franz Kafka on the wall, in an online age where everything is available, but little of it seems quite as desirable. 

Yes, of course the old bookish punk era records sound great again – I suppose what goes around comes around. I still haven’t gotten round to Roads to Freedom yet, though, sorry – it looked like a bit of a commitment when all was said and done, and, well, those girls weren’t going to chat themselves up…

Mike Stoddart

William S. Burroughs photographs used with the kind permission of Jill McArdle

4 thoughts on “Atticus Books – The Friendly Face of the Avant Garde

  1. A lovely shop – I lived with the Saturday ‘girl’, Chris – nearly thirty, so ‘girl’ is a bit patronising, and at the time there was a dog there which to reflect its owners’ life-style they claimed was a vegetarian by choice. When I popped in to see Chris I’d always have a pocket full of meaty treats, and surreptitiously slip them to said slavering hound. They said I must have a way with animals, because I was the only person it welcomed with any enthusiasm.

  2. A lovely shop – I lived with the Saturday ‘girl’, Chris – nearly thirty, so ‘girl’ is a bit patronising, and at the time there was a dog there which to reflect its owners’ life-style they claimed was a vegetarian by choice. When I popped in to see Chris I’d always have a pocket full of meaty treats, and surreptitiously slip them to said slavering hound. They said I must have a way with animals, because I was the only person it welcomed with any enthusiasm.

  3. I hung around L8 slot during the sixties. Reading poetry outside the Bluecoat school and the Walker reading room. The Phil and the Crack were good watering places.

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