Café Royal Books is a one-man print archive of culture, community, and social change based in Southport, UK. This impressive image-based publisher shares the best of documentary photography in weekly releases that cater to those interested in subcultures, British and Irish post-war history and more. We asked founder Craig Atkinson to share his story and recommend some of his favorite titles, in his own words.
“Café Royal Books has only ever been me. It started in 2005. I studied Fine Art and had just finished my masters. I’ve always painted big abstract things that were sort of heavy and slow and expensive and difficult to store and transport. As much as I loved doing them, it was like they were fighting against themselves in a weird way, so I wanted something that was a kind of antidote to all of that. I very quickly decided to quit painting, got rid of the studio, and got rid of most of the work.
“It was like a massive breath of fresh air and I just started to draw again, with no real intention. I was just doing that at home, on scraps of paper, but then eventually, after maybe a year, I sort of started to get that craving to exhibit the drawings again, but I knew I didn’t want to use the gallery. I was familiar with little pamphlets and information booklets, so I wanted to use that type of format to exhibit the drawings. They were fast, disposable, cheap, and affordable to post worldwide, and in multiple. It was everything that the paintings couldn’t be, or couldn’t do.
“The vision for Café Royal Books was the idea of disseminating art, without a gallery. My own practice moved from drawing to using photography in different ways. So the publications became more photographic. I had no training, I knew nothing about photography, but I just kept spotting these bits of work that I really enjoyed for various reasons, so I started to collaborate with different illustrators and photographers and made zines of their work. One thing leads to another, and it kind of starts to carve a path, and photographers started to contact me and it’s gone from there.
“It was quite a playful thing, but as years have gone on I’ve realized that this work that I like hasn’t really had a place before. It’s been neglected by galleries, because it’s not fine art and the photographers haven’t really had a platform to present that work easily and affordably. Much of it’s been made on assignment and once it’s been in the press then it’s kind of had its time. There’s no real outlet for it. That’s become apparent as I’ve been doing this, and has become more important. So I’ve tried to sort of fix that a bit as we go. For the main series of books, it’s usually post-war documentary, shot between about 1960 and 2000, with some sort of link to Britain or Ireland — whether it’s a British or Irish photographer, or an international photographer shooting over here. I’m interested in a lot more, but you have to limit what you do, because otherwise it becomes sprawling, and there’s only me here doing it.
“Things come and go, but at the moment our popular titles are Daniel Meadows’ Factory Records 1979–1980, Yan Morvan’s London Subculture Punk & Protest 1979–1981 and Janette Beckman’s Raw Punk Streets UK 1979–1982 and Mods & Rockers Raw Streets UK 1976–1982 books. The music and subculture titles are doing well, punk in particular. In the time that we’re living in, there’s maybe a bit of punk and protest in many of us. I think that people are perhaps looking back at it as a reference.”
Favorite book from your personal library: The Mona Lisa Mystery, by Pat Hutchins
My favorite book, I suppose, is a childhood book. It’s called The Mona Lisa Mystery. Everyone should read it, it’s brilliant. I read it so many times when I was young. It’s about these school kids who go off on a French trip and end up apprehending a thief that’s trying to steal the Mona Lisa. That’s one, but then I get sent a lot of books because of what I do — dummies and tests and things — and Chris Killip used to send me a lot of ideas for books, and they’re just amazing. Amazing photography. I always cherish those because they’re a one-off. I don’t think there’s any more copies of these, they were just made online and then posted to me, so they’re favorites as well, for very sentimental reasons.
Book whose design has influenced your own design work: Vintage tourist information pamphlets
When I was a kid, I used to go to National Trust-type places with my parents and grandparents. My grandparents used to keep all the little pamphlets from each place in an alphabetized filing system. So I used to love going through that, pulling them out, and reviewing the place that we had visited. I always remembered the design as being very simple and factual, with a bit of text, a few pictures, no decoration and no fuss — it was just about the form, and that was it really. That idea of design and function, and things working well without decoration, has really been a part of Café Royal Books. It’s allowed things to be very straightforward and simple and affordable and utilitarian.
Book that experiments with the format of a book: Garbage Zine, by Esther Pearl Watson and Mark Todd
There’s a couple of artists (they are actually a couple) called Mark Todd and Esther Pearl Watson, who are based in LA. They run this shop called FUNCHICKEN, and they have their own practices too. They make collaborative books and there’s one that they make called Garbage Zine. It’s basically stuff that would have been binned in the studio, but Garbage Zine makes a home for it. It’s got bits of individual drawings and paintings and flyers and all sorts, bound and stapled, so each one is a mini, unique, archive. There’s a few books that they make that are interesting in that way — formats questioning what a book can be.
Non-graphic design book (that graphic designers should read): Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972, by Lucy Lippard
There’s an artist called Lucy Lippard. And she wrote a book called Six Years: The Dematerialization of the Art Object from 1966 to 1972. It’s about a time when conceptual art and minimal art kind of met, and the idea that art doesn’t have to be an object, it can be an idea, or a thought, or a note, or whatever it might be. That’s influenced my thinking in a lot of things. I mean, it’s the way I think naturally, so the book sort of backed up what was always going on in my head, and the fact that other people were thinking this way. I think it’s a great book: the introductions are brilliant, it’s not very long, it’s very easy to read and it’s entertaining. I think that it’s a book that anyone should read, really, as well as graphic designers.
Upcoming Café Royal Books book you’re excited about: Mike Coles’ Blackpool 1967
One we recently put out is Mike Coles’ Blackpool 1967. There’s a load of oysters on the cover. I’m doing three books with Mike Coles and this is all mostly unpublished work, which is great.
There’s also a book on Southport coming soon from Stephen Coleman. I’m from Southport and I’ve lived in Southport my whole life — apart from living in Leeds for a bit — and I’ve waited for years for a good set of Southport pictures. There’s another book by John Darwell, which is part of the new series that I’m doing — the World Series — which allows me to publish work that wouldn’t fit in the others. This one is A Journey from San Francisco to Los Alamos and The Trinity Site 1995, which is where the first atomic bomb was tested.