15 March 2024

Silver Moon was a legendary feminist bookshop founded in London in the 1980s. By the time it shuttered its Charing Cross Road location, the store had become Europe's biggest women's bookshop and hosted literary stars such as Maya Angelou, Angela Carter and Margaret Atwood. One of the co-founders, Jane Cholmeley, has written the store's history, and here, longstanding Fawcett member and author of Stand We At Last, Zoe Fairbairns reviews A Bookshop of One's Own: How a group of women set out to change the world. 

When I got to the bit in A Bookshop of One’s Own where it says ‘the Silver Moon women’s bookshop closed,’ I let out an involuntary little yelp of dismay.

It wasn’t shock: I had known what was coming. I could remember it from real life. Throughout most of the 1980s and 90s, Silver Moon had been my favourite bookshop, as well as that of thousands of other feminist Londoners and visitors, who loved it not only for its books but for its cafe, its events, its radicalism, its chances to meet old friends and make new ones. Nowadays in 2024, the same premises are occupied by a vintage clothes shop, which for all I know may be a very nice vintage clothes shop, but that doesn’t mean that I can accept with equanimity the words ‘Silver Moon’ and ‘closed’ in the same sentence.

The author of A Bookshop of One’s Own is Jane Cholmeley, for whom Silver Moon started in 1982 as a dream which she shared with her partner Sue Butterworth and other women. They opened the shop in 1984. Jane, I am happy to say, is a friend of mine, but even if she weren’t I would want her to be – there is something immensely likeable about her writing style as she moves with clarity, professionalism and good humour between such topics as financial projections and capitalist contradictions, jokes and analysis, and the pleasures of dealing with books. There was tragedy too – Sue Butterworth died in 2004. Always there were the dilemmas of dealing with staff, be they contracted builders or fellow-feminists and friends. Not to mention the exact words uttered by the makers of obscene phone calls.

This latter group is happily outnumbered by Silver Moon’s many supporters – ranging from international celebrities to everyday book-buyers - whose tributes adorn the pages. Disappointingly there is no index, but if there had been it would probably have been difficult to fit everybody in.

So why was Silver Moon eclipsed? In telling the story of its rise and fall, Jane ruefully acknowledges some possible misjudgments on branding: ‘At Silver Moon we were more Seventies than Nineties, more dungarees than lipstick lesbians, more Ruskin College than Madonna. Can you reach across such a breadth of years and attitudes?’

Silver Moon tried, but there were other hazards: high rents, business rates and wage costs. And there was serious competition, not just from other feminist and radical bookshops, but also from larger outlets. The abolition in 1997 of the Net Book Agreement (NBA) – a legal prohibition on booksellers selling books for less than their cover price  – left high-street chains and supermarkets free to discount and undercut in ways which, although they might be good news for cash-strapped customers, were ominous for small shops like Silver Moon.

Survival strategies included expansion, contraction, online bookselling, publishing their own books, even a spell as a shop-within-a-shop at Foyles. But closure came in 2006.  A Bookshop of One’s Own  is a fitting and enjoyable memorial, and celebration. Part-memoir, part manifesto, part how-to guide, part how-not-to guide, it is available from all good bookshops.

A Bookshop of One's Own: How a group of women set out to change the world (£16.99, Mudlark) is available now.