Sue Butterworth

Women's bookseller at Silver Moon
Click to follow
The Independent Online

When Sue Butterworth first opened the doors of Silver Moon Women's Bookshop at 64 Charing Cross Road with her co-founder Jane Cholmeley, general publishing in the UK was having a hard time. It was 1984, and sales were plummeting, hardbacks were becoming an endangered species, the market was shrinking and many small presses were being swallowed up by the publishing giants.



Susan Ann Butterworth, bookseller and publisher: born Llandudno, Caernarvonshire 10 September 1950; died Bank, Hampshire 26 July 2004.



When Sue Butterworth first opened the doors of Silver Moon Women's Bookshop at 64 Charing Cross Road with her co-founder Jane Cholmeley, general publishing in the UK was having a hard time. It was 1984, and sales were plummeting, hardbacks were becoming an endangered species, the market was shrinking and many small presses were being swallowed up by the publishing giants.

Despite this wider malaise, feminist publishing was in good shape. Publishers such as Virago, the Women's Press and Pandora (a "casualty" of the conglomeration phenomenon of the time) were changing the shape of feminist writing. They had a common aim to speak passionately and to be heard. Through Silver Moon, Butterworth and Cholmeley influenced the way the book trade viewed women writers and customers.

Silver Moon's central London location put feminism and women's writing at the commercial heartland of bookselling. It went on to become the largest women's bookshop in Europe, and probably in the world.

Yet this was not an easy time for independent booksellers. For Butterworth and Cholmeley, being specialist and close to their customers was vital. Clever categorisation, creative displays and innovative product offers gave them the edge. Sue Butterworth recalled that one particular book for her held a significance that was both personal and professional. In a recent recording made for the National Life Story Collection, she said:

The book that changed my life was Sexual Politics by Kate Millett [published in 1970]. The box was open, the genie was out and I couldn't put it back in.

"Sexual Politics" became the biggest-selling section in the bookshop.

Virago biographies and authors such as Alice Walker and Margaret Atwood also sold well alongside Silver Moon's own publishing of "Lesbian Friday Night Reads". Silver Moon became more than a bookshop, too, selling jewellery, T-shirts, and producing a quarterly newsletter for their mail order customers; it made a difference to the lives of thousands of women in London - and, via mail order, throughout the UK and worldwide.

Silver Moon flourished, pioneered author events and took over Collet's Bookshop next door, creating a double-fronted bookstore. Despite this success it eventually fell victim to successive rent increases and could no longer survive. The brand was bought by Foyles in 2001 and the site was closed. But Silver Moon still exists as a section in Foyles - just further up the Charing Cross Road.

Following the sale, Butterworth founded Meerkat Books, which, with Arts Council support, works to ensure independent booksellers have a collective voice, in dealing with publishers and developing joint promotions. In the wider context of the book trade she became sought after as a member of the Literature Advisory Panel of Arts Council England; a council member of the Booksellers Association; Vice-Chairman of BTBS, the book-trade charity; and Chairman of the Society of Bookmen. All these roles were tackled in her trademark style: thoughtful, positive and quietly confident.

Even before Silver Moon, women's publishing had been Butterworth's real passion. She was an early prominent member of Women in Publishing, serving on both its general and conference committee. WiP was set up to network, train, bolster confidence and give experience to women in the industry. "It taught me not to be afraid to stand up in front of people," Butterworth said of WiP. "You need a little bit of a political campaigning edge - that's what made it special."

Sue Butterworth was born in 1950 and grew up in the Regency splendour of Llandudno, North Wales, sheltered by the awesome Great Ormes Head. Doris, her elegant mother, had Sue's same wicked sense of humour. Her father, along with her uncle, ran a furniture store. She left school at 16, worked briefly as a cub reporter on a local newspaper, then moved to London, travelling widely in Europe and South Africa before embarking on a working life in publishing.

A warm-spirited woman with enormous courage and sense of occasion, Butterworth was generous and passionate about life, and an excellent dinner companion. In her later years, she lived both in London and the New Forest with her partner Irene Roele. After being told a few weeks ago that her cancer was inoperable, Sue told a friend, "I want to do this well." In typically positive spirit, she did.

Belinda Budge

Comments