The number of independent bookshops in the UK has fallen below 1,000 for the first time since records began. According to the Booksellers Association’s annual membership figures, 67 indies closed in 2013 and 26 opened, leaving the overall number of indies on the high street at 987, down from 1,028 in February 2013.
The net decline of independent bookshops is 41—shallower than in recent years (there was a net loss of 66 indies in 2012, 65 in 2011, and 93 in 2010), but it means that over a third of independent bookshops have been wiped out in the past nine years: in 2005, there were 1,535 in the UK.
Independents have been suffering from rising rents and rates; less trade as high streets suffer and customers are deterred by parking charges; and competition from supermarkets, online retailers and readers migrating to e-books. Notable independents to have closed in 2013 include Hale Bookshop, Wandsworth Bookshop, The Dover Bookshop and children’s specialist The Lion & Unicorn Bookshop.
BA chief executive Tim Godfray said: “Everyone should sit up and take notice of this. The book trade, the government and the general public need to realise that if we don’t take action now, the future of our bookshops—and therefore the health of the publishing industry and reading itself—is at risk.” (See his blog on the topic here).
Patrick Neale, BA president and owner of Jaffé & Neale Bookshop & Café in Chipping Norton, agreed. He said that “nobody is going to celebrate the fact that the number of independent booksellers has dropped below 1,000. That is really sad and I wish it hadn’t happened.”
However, Neale drew attention to the fact that a BA survey of 165 indies over the Christmas period found that bookshop sales were up by an average of 1.3%, despite footfall being down by 10.4%. “Obviously it is incredibly tough for people out there, there is no getting away from that, but some people must be doing some things right,” he said.
Neale added that he was more optimistic for the long-term future of independents after coming back from the American Booksellers Association’s Winter Institute Conference in Seattle, where prominent indies who have been trading for 30 years or more had said that 2013 was one of the best years they had ever experienced in terms of book sales.
Ross Bradshaw opened Fives Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham city centre in November. He told The Bookseller: “I worked in a bookshop between 1979 and 2000, when it closed, and for a number of years it bothered me that Nottingham did not have an independent bookshop. I realised no one was going to open one unless it was me.”
Bradshaw added that he was “happy” with the shop’s turnover in its first three months of trading. “The indies I know doing well are the ones that have an active events programme and build a community of writers and readers around them, but that is not going to work for everybody.
“The decline in independent bookshops in the UK is very worrying.” Bradshaw said. “I think that to be a town, village or area without a bookshop is like a desert. I think bookshops add so much to the cultural life of a place that without one an area is poorer for it.”