New Beacon Books: Co-founder Sarah White dies at 80

Sarah White launched New Beacon Books with John La Rose in 1966

Friday, 11th February — By Charlotte Chambers

sarah white and John la rose in 1980s

Sarah White and her partner John La Rose pictured in the 80s

THE pioneering co-founder of an iconic black bookshop in Finsbury Park has died, aged 80.

Publisher and bookseller Sarah White founded New Beacon Books with her partner John La Rose in 1966, originally running the business from the front room of their home in Albert Street, Finsbury Park.

They had met when she was a student, while working on the anti-apartheid campaign in London in the 1960s.

Described as “inseparable” by their friend Roxy Harris, together Sarah and John started the first black publishing company and from the bookshop sold books by and about the black community, both in the UK and abroad. It also functioned as a meeting place for activists.

Mr Harris said: “She was a very self-effacing, modest, hardworking person with a lot of talents. She tended to stay in the background but contributed a massive amount to black British history, culture and politics, right until she died.”

In Albert Street, books were piled high and she helped deliver them on her Honda 50 scooter.

In 1973, the couple bought the Victorian House in Stroud Green Road from which New Beacon Books has operated from since.

Ms White with bookshop director Janice Durham in 2016

Two months ago, a crowdfunding appeal was successfully launched to keep it open.

Raised in West Hamp­stead, Sarah had been a journalist at New Scientist magazine after university before focusing her energies on racial equality and social justice.

Speaking in 2016, 10 years after John’s death, Sarah said: “We were never just a bookshop and our primary aim was not to run a large-scale commercial operation – for that you have to be very concentrated.

“We saw ourselves as providing information for people, about their history and culture, as well as being a base for other activities.”

Its ownership of the four-storey townhouse building, which is also home to sister organisation the George Padmore Institute (GPI), an archive centre and meeting place, had also helped it to navigate choppy financial waters.

A statement released by New Beacon books, announcing her “sudden” passing, said: “New Beacon Books will remember Sarah’s energy, commitment, dedication and discipline in establishing New Beacon Books over the years. We will miss her distinct laugh. We will miss her daily walk down Stroud Green Road from home pulling along a shopping trolley full of work to build New Beacon Books or the GPI.”

New Beacon Books in Stroud Green Road

During the 1980s and 1990s, described by Sarah as a “golden period” for bookselling, she was instrumental in organising the annual International Book Fair of Radical Black and Third World Books, drawing literary luminaries from around the world to Camden and Islington, including Nobel Prize-winning Nigerian author Wole Soyinka and Kenyan writer and university professor Ngugi wa Thiong’o.
Ngugi, when he learned of Sarah’s death, said: “She and John are everything to me and our struggle.”

As activists, New Beacon Books helped power the civil rights struggle in the UK thanks to its pioneering publishing arm and historic initiatives like the Caribbean Artists Movement (CAM).

Those associated with it include the literary, artistic and political figures who have helped to shape multi-cultural Britain, among them the academic Gus John and performance poet Linton Kwesi Johnson.

At an exhibition held at the Islington Museum in Clerkenwell in memory of John’s life and legacy, the couple’s famous kitchen table from Albert Street was recreated.

Debate and discussion were central and the table played a key role in bringing people from all over the world together; many important ideas were born over cups of tea.

In her final years, “she didn’t slow down,” said Mr Harris, and even in her final months she was still hard at work on a children’s book about John’s life.

At her 80th birthday party last April, friends paid tribute to her achieve­ments, described by one as “the indispensable background day-to-day glue” of the GPI, while another noted how she was “the personification of quiet fire. No dramatic, over­whelming flames, but consistent, steady light”.

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