BA urges government action to protect bookshops

High street bookshops need help from the government if their presence there is to continue, the c.e.o. of the Booksellers Association has said.

Tim Godfray called on the government to give rate relief to businesses with a cultural and educational value to maintain independent bookshops on high streets and protect “the wellbeing of society”. He also called on publishers to do more to support bricks and mortar booksellers.

Godfray’s remarks come after the BA found overall membership numbers had declined by 20% in the last six years, from 4,495 in June 2006 to 3,683 in June 2011, with independent bookshop membership falling even further by 26%, from 1,483 in June 2006 to 1,099 in June 2011.

In a statement, Godfray said: “At a time when literacy is an issue and libraries are under threat from government cuts, we need to build a coalition of publishers, government and consumers to provide opportunities for the passionate and creative entrepreneurs who run bookshops on our high streets to thrive.

“What is clear from surveying our members is the considerable influence local and national government and our competition authorities have on the high street retailer. There is a lot of talk about putting the high street first, but far more action is needed. Rate relief for businesses with a cultural and educational value would be welcome.”

He added the issue affected wider society, not just BA members, because maintaining bookshops high streets is vital to literacy, the future economic prosperity of UK plc and “the cultural health of our nation.” He said: “There is plenty that can be done but it needs to be done now if we are to maintain bookshops on our high streets and protect the significant impact they have on the wellbeing of local society the UK. We will be making representations in the next few months to the appropriate bodies, and are also providing our members with posters for shop windows.”

The BA recently surveyed its members in August about concerns local and national government could address and the top three issues cited were rates (29%), parking (28%) and planning (13%).

Godfray told The Bookseller the BA had decided to speak out now after finding out its “stark” membership figures. He said: “For us, the membership figures were really worrying and disturbing and we took the view it was incumbent on us to take action about the situation we find ourselves in."

However, while Godfray said in the BA statement that action was needed to maintain bookshops on the high street, the sector was not at fatal risk. He told The Bookseller: "While the figures are despairing, we are not saying bookshops will not survive, we would never say that.”

The BA would also like to see more free or lower cost parking in town centres to encourage customers to use the shops there along with better planning of town centres, so that shops are not allowed to become vacant and community centres become “like ghost towns.” Godfray said: “So many of our members are despairing about the difficulty that customers have in parking and getting near to their shops.”

The organisation has been in talks with publishers to look at better ways of supporting high street retailers but Godfray refused to elaborate on details. However, he said: “Fewer bookshops equals fewer sales for authors, publishers and for booksellers. We have been working closely with publishers and it is certainly clear that they are generally really concerned about the pressure bookshops are under and many are considering ways they can give bookshops greater support.”

Jane Streeter, owner of The Bookcase in Lowdham and president of the BA, said the decline in bookshop numbers is not inevitable. She said: “Booksellers are already at the heart of their communities, key parts of their local high streets, and are undertaking positive and innovative work across the country to make their shops the best places to browse and discover new books.

"However, if we don’t make a real and concerted effort now, then the economics for high street booksellers simply won’t add up. We need to see a real commitment from publishers and government to offer opportunities to booksellers so we can keep our place on the high street, and keep our high streets diverse and innovative work across the country to make their shops the best places to browse and discover new books.”