This Radical Bookshop Also Serves Radical Vegan Food
All photos by the author. 

This Radical Bookshop Also Serves Radical Vegan Food

Liverpool’s News From Nowhere has been selling political books and serving as a hangout for left-wing activists since the 1970s. And in the basement hides a pay-by-donation vegan cafe.
06 October 2017, 3:49pm

Tourist guides to Liverpool will tell you that Bold Street is the city's food and shopping hub. Independent restaurants, bars, organic grocery shops, and clothing boutiques line the street, leading some to see it as the Carnaby Street of the North. What the guidebooks probably won't tell you, though, is that a bustling, non-profit vegan cafe is operating metres below your feet.

News From Nowhere radical bookshop in Liverpool. All photos by the author.

Inside News From Nowhere.

Food From Nowhere opened in 2008 in the basement of radical bookshop, News From Nowhere. Established in 1974 on a much smaller premises in another area of Liverpool, the shop is run by a women's collective and aims to "provide access to books and information on the reality of the world and how to change it and ourselves for the better." In 1996, the shop's current five-storey building was bought outright using donations from locals and is still used as a community space by Liverpool's left-wing activists.

I visit News From Nowhere on an early autumn day. After ringing the doorbell next to an appropriately socialist-red door, I'm buzzed in and make my way down the winding staircase, guided by handwritten signs. The first face I meet belongs to Milo, the building's friendly mascot dog who greets me with a wagging tail. The next is Katy Brown, one of the volunteers. She set about converting News From Nowhere's cellar a decade ago, turning it from dirt and soil into a functioning cafe.

"I was keen that the space be regularly open for people to just drop in and get involved," she says. "And tasty vegan food seemed the perfect way to entice people down."

The bookshop's basement meeting space.

The basement space is split into two large rooms. To reach the cafe, I head through the meeting space, which doubles as a children's play area, crammed with chairs, toys, and political literature. A cheerful wall-painting urges me to "Organise!"

In the cafe, almost every seat is filled and diners seem happy for strangers to join them. I take a seat and dive into a huge bowl of springy fusilli spirals, liberally scattered with crisp basil leaves and a tangy tomato sauce. It's a hearty, healthy bowl, and at £3.50, a fraction of the cost of nearby restaurants.

Fusilli pasta with basil and tomato sauce.

But the menu doesn't list prices, instead asking for suggested donations. This is an important principle, says Georgie, a softly-spoken Liverpudlian, who first heard of Food From Nowhere after attending the building's second floor Methodist Church.

"In most cafes, you've got your own table with your own food that you've bought yourself and you sit alone," she says. "Whereas here people chat with each other across the table, and I think that's to do with the fact you don't own this food, you've just given a donation for it."

Food From Nowhere vegan cafe.

The cafe bucks convention in other ways, too.

"The menu is different every time, depending on who's in the kitchen that week. It's down to the skill set of whoever is working," says Georgie. One week it could be Chinese food, the next, pizza. Each according to ability, so the credo goes.

I share a chestnut biscuit with Georgie, sneaking a piece to Milo, who waits patiently at our feet. The texture is crumbly and chewy, more like a freshly-baked cinnamon cake than a brittle biscuit. Milo wolfs his down, as do I.

Volunteer chefs cook in the Food From Nowhere kitchen.

"My signature dish would be my vegan Spanish omelette," says Brown. "It's really simple and cheap to make using only potato, onion, and gram flour so there's no need for fancy ingredients. It's delicious served with salad, bread, and a dollop of vegan garlic mayo."

But Food From Nowhere is about more than healthy, sustainable food.

"We're attempting to demonstrate a practical example of doing things differently—collectively and non-hierarchically," Brown explains.

And the vegan-only menu is an important element of this ideology.

"We work along anarchist, anti-oppressive principles," says Brown. "So it's an attempt to extend these intentions towards other animals."

These ethics are plain to see—the cafe's walls are packed with manifesto-style posters. One sign advocates anti-capitalism and solidarity, while another encourages people to become an artist rather than join the army. I can understand why subversive electronic band The KLF chose News From Nowhere as the location for their recent "Welcome to the Dark Ages" event. But there's little dogma or browbeating directed to those who eat here. The emphasis is on the social, rather than political.

When asked how she'd respond in the unlikely event a group of Young Tories turned up for dinner at Food From Nowhere, Brown is firm but fair.

"If they'd come to be deliberately provocative they might get the cold shoulder," she says. "But if they were merely curious, or there for the food and behaved respectfully then they would be welcomed, and perhaps some constructive debate would ensue!"

Across the UK, soaring rents have seen non-profit cafes like this shoved out of city centres, while the rise of Amazon and other online bookstores has led to the demise of hundreds of independent bookshops.

"The fact that we own this building, in such a good location, is really lucky," says Maria Ng, who works at the bookshop and helps coordinate volunteers for the cafe. "It has given us a kind of security that bookshops who rent their premises don't have, unfortunately."

The building is also home to a number of other progressive businesses, such as Liverpool Pride and the anti-capitalist Nerve Magazine, while the bookshop has supported countless local, national and international causes, from Stop The War to the Hillsborough Justice Campaign.

This socially-conscious spirit means neighbouring businesses hold 96 Bold Street in high regard. Thomas White, co-owner of acclaimed restaurant Maray, describes News From Nowhere as a "Liverpool institution," and nearby world food store Matta's often helps the cafe out with donations and discounts.

While the principle of private ownership might go against socialist theory, here it means safety from unscrupulous landlords, ensuring both bookshop and cafe won't be going anywhere soon. Which is good news for fans of ethical eating and left-wingers alike.

But anyone hoping to enjoy a meal at News From Nowhere should be prepared to offer a helping hand.

"Often when I come here to eat," says Georgie, "I jump on the sink and do the dishes for half an hour. A lot of people do that."

Don't fret, it's a small price to pay for some of the best home-cooked vegan food in Liverpool.