Leeds’ cultural scene has been enriched in 2016 by the presence of Hyde Park Book Club, a small café and arts space a stone’s throw from Hyde Park Corner. The venue has become a hub for creative and intellectual activity in Hyde Park, with events ranging from local DJs playing gospel music to seminars on the implications of Brexit for immigration in the UK.
We caught up with the owner, Jack Simpson, over a lunchtime coffee in the Book Club’s new second room. Jack told us how he “wanted the Book Club to be a place that had a mixture of… intellectual stuff and some hedonistic stuff without such barriers between art forms”. After visits to the painfully cool boroughs of Berlin’s Kreuzberg and New York’s Brooklyn he had noticed that they were ‘a little ahead of where Leeds was a couple years ago’, and they had similar spaces which provided a nucleus for creatives.
Creating the space in a student area was a priority, as “culture has shifted so much in the past 10-15 years… younger people have very quick access to a much wider range of information”. However, Jack felt that “LS6 (thats the postcode, not the cafe) didn’t feel like it was reflecting those changes and didn’t feel like it was really offering space for young people to come and express how they found culture”. The Book Club was created due to his belief that “if you create structures through which people can express themselves then that will happen […] especially young people who are at their most energetic phase of exploring the world”.
While most students will be familiar with the Book Club for its stellar cast of live DJs, there are also numerous discussion groups touching on contemporary issues in philosophy, politics and beyond. Jack laments the current situation in which students “spend three years at a university around abstract ideas”, but then there is little scope or reason to carry this on after graduation. Therefore “it’s important that humans have space to just get together and discuss the human experience”.
Jack doesn’t want the book club to be “purely a place to party”, but rather wants it to be “a place where you can bridge those two worlds […] and people can see that you don’t have to live this purely waster hedonistic life to in order to be a person in the arts”.
The process of curation is largely decentralised: “Its about people coming to us and saying ‘I really want to do this thing’”. There are little requirements past people “do[ing] something that we think is good and worthwhile”, and perhaps most importantly “something that you care about, so if you don’t care about the artwork you’re going to have for your event or if you don’t care about whether people come to it […] there are other places you might want to do that”.
While Jack ultimately approves event pitches, he discusses how their programme is essentially curated by the needs of people within the area. “The area says we’d really like to have a discussion about, I don’t know, what the Trump election was about or we really want to take our party out of our bedroom or I’ve got an art exhibition and there’s just not any spaces I can find in Leeds at the moment […] we go ‘great cos we can offer you the final thing you need to express that publicly’”.
Jack says he opens his emails every day to a number of pitches, and that often he’s “not thought of that [myself], so I’m open to people suggesting whatever. The one thing I think I would say to any people just getting started is just to do it. A lot of the nights that we have here that are now moving on to being quite big nights in the city centre were just a group of people in a bedroom and they came to us and said ‘can we do it’”. Jack says “the difference between people who do things and don’t is that people that do them do them and [are not] afraid to fail”.
While this might seem like an obvious point, it’s this positive attitude to getting things done that has made the Book Club such a culturally important space in such a short amount of time.