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Jura Books History

[Note, this history was written in 2005, and needs some updating.]

Jura books began in 1977 in a building with a shopfront at 417 King Street Newtown, we moved to 110 Crystal St Petersham, then to 438 Parramatta Road for a short time, then to the present location at 440 Parramatta Road Petersham. To be quite accurate, though, Jura began in another form about a year earlier – this is explained a little further on. But rather than just give an historical dateline of what has happened over the past years, this will be more of an account of the processes involved in establishing and maintaining a voluntary, anti-profit, collectively run bookshop.

The first thing is to explain, only because everyone asks, why we called the place ‘Jura Books’. Well, it’s named after the federation of workers of the ‘Jura’ region of France and Switzerland that associated with Michael Bakunin in the First International – one of the first large organised groups of workers who organised along anarchist lines. In about the 1870s, the Jura Federation, as it was called, consisted of 20-30,000 workers – largely, though not only, watchmakers and building workers. Peter Kropotkin, another very famous anarchist of his time, journeyed to this region and learned a great deal of his ‘formal’ anarchism among the Jura watchmakers. I say ‘formal’ because, without knowing much of the writings of anarchism, he formulated the basic concepts for himself during his youth and in his 20s, from his personal experiences, discussions and thoughts, when in the Russian military exploring the vast wilderness of Siberia. This story about Kropotkin shows the nature of anarchism itself, that is, anarchism is not an artificial theory that was formulated by some bearded guy while studying in a library for 24 years …or by a guru on a mountain. It reflects the notion that many anarchists hold, that anarchism is all around us. It is in the way ordinary people interact and help each other out, especially when various imposed authoritarian concepts and structures are absent, or, as Kropotkin would eventually put it, even in Nature itself. Anarchism is not a theory to be artificially applied, but an ethic that can be (re) discovered in our own experiences, as a way of resolving our needs. So it’s not an artificially constructed end point or some sort of an imposed ‘utopia’, but a utopic process or journey of life, living and work.

Although Jura Books adopted a consciously collective form of organisation, its origins were actually of a different sort – a split. During the 1970s, a series of anarchist conferences were held in Sydney and Melblourne. At the last of these, a split occurred between the ‘organisationals’ and the ‘anti-organisationalists’ Or, as a later Spanish member would have said “A clarification occurred”. At the conference with something like 150 - 200 people, a heated debate developed between those who wanted a chairperson and those who declared it an anti-anarchist practice. Most organisationalists left the conference to meet elsewhere and decided to set up an anarchist book importing and distributing service. This ‘Jura Book Service’ coordinated the joint buying and distribution of material for the three or four groups from different cities around the continent. At the time, very few anarchist titles were available in the country, mostly they were found in Marxist bookshops and all from overseas. In Sydney, that original group, with a couple of additions would begin the first anarchist bookshop in Australia for perhaps 60 or more years – since the Andrade shop in Melbourne.

So, even though we began out of a split, Jura was established on collectivist lines, as derived from the 1920s-30s Spanish anarchist affinity groups via two filters - one of the 1960s popular radical cultural, feminist, environmental and anti-war movements. The second was the Spanish anarchist principles as transmitted from mostly post-war European migrants who re-awakened the anarchist/syndicalist project in Australia. These great characters included Antonio and Victoria, Jose and Louise, George and Mary, Jack, Gonzalas, John the Macodonian, Pat the American Wobblie, and many more who acted as mentors to the young ones of the day who came out of the 1960s.

We were not the only ones to set out on this path as many diverse organisations at the time adopted the collective form of organising. This approach was consciously taken up as opposed to the (Marxist) Party structure, and was often heatedly debated and fought over. Some examples of these included the newly emerging feminist groups (women’s refuges, discussion and publication groups), some artistic groups (Tin Sheds poster collective, poetry groups), industrial groups (building industry, metal workers, postal, nursing) and militant political groups (anti-uranium, other green groups, prisoner’s action).

Some of the ideas that have been our guiding principles over the years have included, although not all at one time, nor in exactly the same way:

  • Jura Books is an anarchist and anarcho-syndicalist bookshop.
  • We operate on a volunteer basis.
  • Any increase on the cost price of a title will be minimal, originally intended to cover inflation, and was originally 10%.
  • All book takings were to stay for expansion of stock – this has changed over time.
  • We would operate as much as possible in an environmentally friendly way.
  • All overhead costs to be covered by donations from within the collective, and from regular donors, and fundraising outside the collective, (now some of the books-takings goes to help with the bills).
  • All decisions are made at regular (originally weekly) meetings of the collective, with delegated authority to members to carry out tasks.
  • Membership of the collective is by decision of the established group. Expulsion from the collective is possible.
  • Tasks, such as the ordering of titles, banking, accounts, fundraising…are shared on a volunteer basis and on a mechanism established for regular opportunities to rotate jobs. Cleaning tasks are attached to the daily shop-staffing roster.
  • An easily accessible shop-front premises to be maintained.
  • Wherever possible, the building is to be an activist centre for like-minded groups – as accepted by the collective.

The above is a compilation of concepts that have underscored the way Jura has operated for the last, nearly, three decades. Just to repeat: not all ideas have been in practice all the time. Also the balance between us as a staid book-selling outfit and as militant activists has changed depending on who has been involved and their interests and energies.

What collectivity has meant has changed over the years depending on the membership, in terms of personalities, differing levels of commitment to the notion of collectivity, and the numbers of people involved. For example, the greater the number of members, the greater the need for systems to be in place so that everyone has ‘stewardship’ of the project – or a sense of belonging and control. This is something that the current collective is re-developing.

Our time in King St saw our stock increase about 10,000% - that wasn’t hard as we started with only a few books. Placing requests for donations on our noticeboard to help us move into a new publisher or distributor, saw us end up with, perhaps, 5-10,000 books, maybe more. Not all were on the shop shelves, as we had about an equal number in the store room. At one stage we almost had more stock out on consignment to anarchist groups across Australia than we had in the shop.

Jura and various Jurans were involved in various activists campaigns, Close Katingal (prison), Stop Uranium Mining, women’s refuge (Marrickville) support, “Everything” anarcha-feminist collective, Jura Silk-screen Printing Collective, the Industrial Workers of the World, Vitamin C Distribution Fund, Black Cat Printers, among many other causes, projects and campaigns. Jura also held a major conference, the first since the ones of the 1970s – “1984 and Social Control Conference” that was held in the Merewhether Building at Sydney University. It attracted, maybe, 800 - 1,000 different people over three days. The initial plenary session just about filled the main theatre that had seating for 600. There was a very successful dance on the Saturday night too.

In terms of numbers, Jura started out with about eight members, went to about 12 within six months, and to about 15-16 over the next two years. Then it was down to eight again due to a split over differing ideas of collectivity. Membership rose again to 10-12 over the next few years until about our 10th anniversary. At that time we were forced to move out of the first shop, a rented premises because the owner wanted to sell the building without tennants, and we could not afford the asking price. Having raised about $78,000, (in about 18 months) we put down a deposit on the building in Crystal St. That was a huge effort which is a story in itself.

That effort and the move saw the collective soon reduce to five. But this only happened after another big effort of saying ‘thanks’ to those who supported us in the move to establish a permanent home for the Jura project. That ‘thankyou’ was the 1988 “Beyond Social Control Conference” . This time the event was held in the University of Technology Law Courts Building – the old ‘Markets” building. It was, again, a great success and attracted several hundred people over two days. However the new location for the bookshop turned out to be not so good in terms of attracting patrons, and sales dived, as did the collective. Over the next five years Jura reached a very low point in many ways and the following five saw a slow, though not full, recovery. There were some notable exceptions, though.

Renewed energy among a few key players had Jura join with Black Rose and other anarchists to help organise the 1995 “Goals and Visions” Conference. Besides the many sessions of the conference that was held over the weekend, the highlight of that event was the lecture by Noam Chomsky in the Sydney Town Hall. Three thousand people turned up to an event that was advertised as anarchist, with 2-300 turned away because we were not allowed to fit any more in the hall, due to fire-safety restrictions.

Unfortunately, about this time, a major conflict as to the direction of Jura arose. This was about 12-18 months after the Goals and Visions conference – what should have been a time to build. Once the dispute was settled, not without some more membership losses for the collective, we set out on a more positive path once again.

We made moves to secure a new building in a better location. We sold the Crystal St place and moved to out current address at Parramatta Road. Not far away in distance, after all it’s in the same suburb, but back again on a main street and a ‘million miles’ closer to where people were. Once more, the move was only accomplished with great effort and at a cost to the membership. We should have had enough to pay off the new building, as it cost less than we sold the Crystal St building, but another matter changed that. Termites! We had successful tackled the problem at Crystal St on three major occasions, with the help of the ‘Termite Retirement Fund’ (thanks to Alison for the great title for that fundraising campaign – it raised about $2-3,000 for environmentally friendly termite treatment and a new floor for the shop).

Unfortunately, the termites at the new place were well hidden and we did not find them until we moved in. It cost us $30,000 to have the front of the building reconstructed. Much of the refurbishment work we did ourselves, but the major engineering work at the front we could not do. It also delayed our move into the building and so we rented a shop at 438 Parramatta Road, fortunately just next to our own place, but that was for a year, which, of course, also cost a lot. We sold the old place for more than the new one cost, but with the mentioned problems, the move saw us continue with a mortgage – that we still have.

At 440 things are looking up. Besides sales increasing for the bookshop, the current building is used by Black Cat Printers, the Anarcho-Syndicalist Network, the Media Room, the Fanya Baron Workers Library, and is a meeting place for the anarchist-feminist group AWOL, the Industrial Workers of the World, and CAT Media. Much work has been done over the past few years by several new people who have joined the collective. The Library is now out of its boxes, and is beginning to resemble a library, we have held several major events at Jura including a major poster exhibition, and have organised a very successful Workers Control Conference, besides having book stalls at many other events. There have also been several popular film nights and discussion evenings at Jura. Much has been done, there is still much to do.


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