On Friday February 1 2013, someone tried to burn Freedom down. Lifting up a shutter, they broke a window and poured a flammable liquid through before setting it on fire.
Although there were no injuries, hundreds of books were destroyed. Electrics were melted, the ceiling wrecked, the windows all but destroyed, shelving went up in smoke and firefighters arrived only minutes before the offices above would have caught fire, all but guaranteeing the destruction of the rest of the building. The Press archive, kept so historians could have an easily accessible resource, was singed and soaked and barely survived.
Freedom, which had run out of insurance only a week before, has been left with a bill running into the tens of thousands of pounds.
Theories abound as to who did it, with many blaming the far-right – the Press was attacked twice in the 1990s by grumpy skinheads – but with police taking away CCTV recordings and saying little since then supporters can do little more than speculate.
The real story isn’t the fire or the culprits, however, it’s the response.
The news broke on social networks at around midday. Within hours hundreds of people had pushed the news on and the phones of Freedom collective members began to ring off the hook. A callout for help was quickly prepared which also went viral and mainstream press sources began to pick up on the story, ensuring it would go well beyond anarchist circles.
The next day, Angel Alley filled with more people than it had ever seen before from across the left of the political spectrum. So many we could barely fit, hauling the books out, cleaning them, cleaning shelves, washing walls, sorting what could be saved, painting and getting in each others’ way. Then, each day afterwards, more people came to keep the work going. Collective members who knew what needed doing gave volunteers a steer and left everyone to organise themselves.
On Monday the bookshop reopened in a limited sort of way. By the following Friday it was repainted and the books had all been cleaned and sorted. And now a collection of skilled volunteers are going over what needs to be done to make the bookshop better than it was before.
Online, hundreds of solidarity messages came through from all over the world, alongside promises of donations, fundraising events and other gestures of support, including a book of poetry which has had over 350 submissions at the time of writing and two separate music albums from Scribbo and Iron Column Records.
In the end something like £13,000 was raised, allowing the Press not only to rebuild and re-open the bookshop on the ground floor but to fix up the windows, redo the electrics, and even keep the Freedom Press magazine in print throughout, though it sadly later closed as a regular paid-for publication in October 2014.