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Keith Leonard was a co-founder of Mushroom Bookshop, Nottingham's alternative and radical bookshop (which served hippies, activists and other malcontents between 1972-2000). He sadly died at Nottingham QMC on August 7th 2009, from heart problems, after years of living with disability.
Keith was born in Kent and studied maths at Cambridge. But in 1972, after a spell as a landscape gardener, he set up Mushroom with his then partner (now a Sparrows’ Nest Collective member).
The first Mushroom premises were at 261 Arkwright Street, near Trent Bridge, and books bought there could always be recognised by their distinctive aroma of joss sticks and incense, which were also sold, alongside craft items, badges and hippy paraphernalia. The first book sold was by Spike Milligan, and it was many months before turnover reached £100 per week. But the shop served an increasingly large community and, supported by the founders supplementing it with part time work, managed to expand. We had no training or previous experience in bookselling, but in those days it was possible to ask advice and learn as you went along. Compendium in London and Orwell Books in Ipswich were particularly helpful.
In the early years, Mushroom and its founders had an anarchist ethos, and anarchist books and papers, as well as other radical and alternative material, were an important part of what the shop sold.
When the Meadows were redeveloped, Mushroom moved to Heathcote Street in the Lace. In 1978, on learning of a pregnancy, the founders increased the Mushroom collective to around five people. Sadly, the first baby only lived for two days, but a year later daughter Anna was born, bringing much joy.
In those pre-internet days, Nottingham's radical bookshop played a large role in Nottingham's activist community and acted as a forum for the spreading of ideas. Literature sold helped to set the agenda of the day, and notices and leaflets in the shop helped like-minded people to come together. Mushroom stocked a large range of radical papers and magazines as well as books, and some groups, such as previous Nottingham Anarchist groups, were set up as a result of communicating through the shop. Both Mushroom founders were members of anarchist groups. Mushroom played a large part in the anti-nuclear movement, and published some pamphlets. It also suffered unwanted attention from both fascists and police.
Despite the early strong anarchist ethos in Mushroom, in the early1980s some collective members chose to discontinue stocking a number of anarchist publications, and this led to a power struggle and a split, which resulted in one of the founders being excluded from the collective. Keith continued working in Mushroom until 1998, when he suffered a stroke which left him with a disability. The remaining Mushroom collective members used this as an excuse to exclude him from the collective, and although a tribunal later found that he had been unfairly dismissed, he never worked again.
Keith's varied interests included music, walking, poetry (which he also wrote and published), photography and, of course, books. He loved the Peak District, but this love was overtaken when he discovered the Lake District. His legacy to those interested in the Sparrows’ Nest remains that he helped to bring anarchist, alternative and radical literature and ideas to Nottingham, and that he himself was an active anarchist for a while. Some of the anarchist books found in his personal library after his death have been donated to the Sparrows’ Nest library by his daughter.
Chris Cann, Mushroom co-founder and Sparrows’ Nest collective member