The Silver Moon bookshop on Charing Cross Road, in central London. Image: Robin A. Forbes

Heavenly body

Silver Moon was more than just a bookshop—it was how many people, especially women, found themselves
May 1, 2024

“Wearied by Waterstones? Frustrated by Foyles? Are your dungarees too naff for Sisterwrite?” This was the candid first draft of an advert for the newly opened Silver Moon Women’s Bookshop, written by one of its founders, Sue Butterworth. 

The ad was for the catalogue of the first Feminist Book Fair, which took place in London in early June 1984. Silver Moon had unlocked its doors only days earlier. On 31st May, to be exact, and at 68 Charing Cross Road, the West End thoroughfare that has been synonymous with bookselling since the late Victorian era. Silver Moon remained there for an impressive 17 years, weathering the worst injustices of Thatcherite Britain, including Section 28. Forged in the radical tumult of the 1970s, the bookshop was a beacon of sisterly solidarity for women navigating their way from second- to third-wave feminism, and on into the 21st century.

Sadly, in 2004, only three years after the bookshop closed, Butterworth died of cancer. But 20 years on, her ex-lover, long-time business partner and co-founder of Silver Moon, Jane Cholmeley, has written an eye-opening, rabble-rousing and moving memoir. It details the blood, sweat, tears, laughter and love that she, Butterworth, Jane Anger (the bookshop’s third co-founder) and all the other women involved in Silver Moon poured into this now legendary institution.

Cholmeley and Butterworth met in 1976. Butterworth had already come out, but things hadn’t quite clicked into place yet for the then 28-year-old Cholmeley. All it took was a pronoun though, slipped seductively into Butterworth’s account of a previous relationship: “She…” Cholmeley heard the word, but more than that, “I saw it,” she writes, “hanging in the air, and I knew that, as it floated downward, I absolutely had to catch it before it fell to pieces on the ground. My life depended on it.”

Cholmeley’s sexual and romantic awakening was also a political one. Spurred on by friends and colleagues—she and Butterworth were both working in the publishing industry—the couple joined the Women’s Liberation Movement and set to educating themselves, which meant reading everything they could get their hands on: from Lisa Alther and Simone de Beauvoir, through Betty Friedan, Kate Millet, Ursula K Le Guin and Jane Rule, to Dale Spender and Virginia Woolf. Three years later, their dream of a women’s bookshop was born. They needed a reliable income, but they also wanted to pour their energies into something that mattered. (They were each working part-time jobs they didn’t feel passionate about.)

Silver Moon wasn’t London’s first feminist bookshop. The aforementioned Sisterwrite in Islington—with its snappily dressed staff and customers!—had that honour when it opened its doors in 1978. But there was room for both, especially once the Charing Cross Road site had been agreed upon; it was far enough away from Upper Street to not be considered a direct competitor. Not so, unfortunately, when Virago Press decided to open its own bricks-and-mortar feminist bookshop only minutes away in Covent Garden. Cholmeley & Co were duly upset, but the two businesses soon found a way to coexist supportively.

Cholmeley makes clear just how much was riding on these avowedly feminist endeavours

When it comes to the history of high-profile, ardently feminist business ventures, Virago Press included, there’s always a certain type of commentator who relishes any mention of dissent within the ranks, eager to exploit it as evidence of how emotionally turbulent women in the workplace can be. But Cholmeley makes clear in this frank behind-the-scenes account just how much was riding on these avowedly feminist endeavours.

“I was personally driven to succeed by my sense of being less and being other. Less as a woman and other being gay. I felt that society saw me as a second-class citizen and derided my love,” she explains: “Success was a business statement, a personal statement and a political statement.” Not only was Silver Moon hugely important to the identities of the individuals involved, but its success or failure could have a public impact on how women’s abilities and talents were perceived. As Carmen Callil, the gloriously outspoken founder of Virago Press, declared, “It’s our duty not to go bust.” Given the stakes, you’d have to be a sociopath not to feel emotional entanglement.

The good times far outweighed the bad, though, and by anyone’s standards, Silver Moon was a resounding success. A vox pop carried out four years into trading provides insight into the customers who were flocking there—from a South African tourist who wanted a postcard to show her friends back home, lest they not believe that such a utopia existed, to the “two young women [who], quite excited, said that Evelyn Waugh was their favourite writer, but went out with LESBIAN SEX!”

Michael Foot, the writer, journalist and former leader of the Labour party, was a regular, as was the comedian Victoria Wood. When, in July 1992, the shop expanded to fill the premises next door, double-Oscar-winning Hollywood star-turned-Labour MP Glenda Jackson cut the ribbon. Not only was the shop a good place to spot a celebrity or two, it was also a great place to pick up a date. Listings magazine City Limits declared Silver Moon on a Saturday morning as London’s top lesbian cruising venue.

The bookshop was a bastion for both women readers and writers, gay and straight, and when it came to author signings and live events, the bookshop punched far above its weight. Margaret Atwood, Maya Angelou, Gloria Steinem and Angela Carter were just some of the highlights on its impressive list of guests. Alice Walker came twice; Cholmeley describes both visits as “rock-star crazy”—the queues reached all the way down Charing Cross Road. In one of the lines was a young, black British woman named Malorie Blackman—now author of the critically lauded and hugely popular Noughts and Crosses series and former children’s laureate, but at the time the recipient of more than 70 rejection letters who was struggling to get her first novel published. She waited three hours to ask Walker to write “Don’t give up” in the book that she presented for a signature.

Sexually explicit and threatening phone calls were a not uncommon occurrence

Not everyone was thrilled by the shop’s existence, though, and Cholmeley provides an uncomfortable insight into the pre-digital era of trolling. Sexually explicit and threatening phone calls and hate mail were, sadly, a not uncommon occurrence. Worse still were those antagonists who actually ventured into the shop. These were men, of course, ranging from anti-feminists feeling threatened by a female-only space (the basement café was a male-free zone) to flashers and even masturbators.

Despite Cholmeley and Butterworth’s best efforts, the ruthless combination of Amazon’s entry into the marketplace and ludicrously rising West End rents eventually proved insurmountable. When, in 2001, they announced their impending closure, Butterworth suggested they put a comments book on the shop’s front counter, inviting customers to leave a message or a memory. Fittingly, Cholmeley draws to a close with a selection of these, the anonymous first of which says everything we need to know: “This is where my life really started.”

“Silver Moon lit up the darkness,” reads another comment. How wonderful that 20 years on, with this celebratory memoir, Cholmeley is still illuminating the gloom.