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At Central Books

July 16, 2016
by the gentle author

Do you wonder where Spitalfields Life Books come from? Perhaps you thought I keep them in my attic in Spitalfields and I climb a rickety ladder every time someone wants one? In fact, they have recently been coming from Central Books‘ magnificent agglomeration of old warehouses in Hackney Wick, which is the next best thing.

Yet the modern age has caught up with Central Books, which was founded by the Communist Party in 1940, and they are now moving to fancy new warehouse in Chadwell Heath opposite Nichols & Clarke, another emigrant from the East End. So, as they make preparations to leave their nineteenth century premises for good, I took this last opportunity for a ramble around to explore the forgotten corners of the lonely old book store with my camera.

Central Books’ headquarters is a tall building on Wallis Rd that was originally the Clarnico Chocolate Box Factory. It houses offices on the top floor, a packing room on the ground floor and three floors of bookshelves in between. During the Olympics and to bemusement of the staff, MI5 made frequent visits to this building which enjoys a unique view upon the site of the games.

Grafted onto this tower are a string of warehouses of differing ages, connected by yards that have been subsequently roofed over to create a curious architectural assemblage, in which former exterior walls become interior and you walk from early nineteenth into early twentieth century spaces. Before they became a book warehouse, all these structures were built for different purposes, some lost.

The largest warehouse has an elaborate wooden roof with rough hewn timbers which appears as much agricultural as industrial in style. This early nineteenth century barn-like space was once used for the manufacture of lace and, since the precise location is unknown, may be where the very first plastic – parkesine – was manufactured in the eighteen-sixties in Hackney Wick.

Central Books arrived here in 1990 from the Leathermarket in Bermondsey, yet the company began at the Communist Party HQ in King St, Covent Garden, in the thirties, before opening a shop in Red Lion Sq then Grays Inn Rd and expanding to thirty-two party shops across the country by 1945, distributed books produced by the USSR to the entire free world.

Yet when Bill Norris – who runs Central Books today – took over in 1984, the fortunes of the company had followed the decline of the Communist movement. Bill oversaw the transfer of ownership of Central Books to the workforce in the nineteen-nineties, as it cut its political ties and expanded to distribute a wide range of independent publishers.

Today, a small company like Central Books give a personal service that cannot be matched by corporate distributors yet, although the move to Chadwell Heath will increase efficiency, I shall miss the atmospheric old warehouses in Hackney Wick which have given my books a temporary home on their journey between the printer and the bookseller, on their way to you.

Announcement of the founding of Central Books by the Communist Party. Nowadays, Central Books distributes The Gentle Author’s London Album and Spitalfields Nippers but it was once quite different.

Central Books in 1961

Two buildings spliced together

Central Books occupy the former Clarnico Chocolate Box Factory

Retailers can order all Spitalfields Life Books wholesale direct from

You may also like to read about

The Modest Wonders of Hackney Wick

4 Responses leave one →
  1. July 16, 2016

    Great post, I have used Central Books for so long and value their service and for distributing unusual books. I remember their central London shop and David Rosenberg, author and East End walks, who used to deliver their books.

  2. July 16, 2016

    Great photos, and an interesting trip down memory lane for me. Valerie

  3. Shawdian permalink
    July 16, 2016

    Change, change, always change.
    What will happen to this Victorian building when your books leave?

  4. July 16, 2016

    Books — my passion!

    Love & Peace

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