Old trade, new futures

Old trade, new futures

The New Futures Initiative - launched at the end of September and announced in The Bookseller - is a scheme to reach out to individuals from underrepresented groups and encourage them - through mentoring and tangible support - to open a bricks and mortar bookshop.

The initiative is a collaboration between the Booksellers Association (the trade body that represents booksellers) and Bookshop.org (the ethical online retailer supporting independent bookshops). Given my involvement in both entities - and my position as one of the few Black booksellers in the UK - I wanted to explain why I am so excited about its launch, but also why it’s the initiative the bookselling world needs right now.

Running a bookshop isn’t easy. There are many downsides, the same as with any job, and I’ve definitely never spent a working day sat behind the counter, peacefully reading, drinking endlessly hot cups of tea and eating shortbread biscuits - or whatever a dreamer's idea of bookselling might be.

Engaged and passionate booklovers should be able to consider bookselling as a viable way to earn a living and experience the joys in the same way that I have

But I’ve experienced many moments of professional joy. I’ve been thanked many, many times by customers who’ve loved books I’ve recommended; I’ve been paid for books by earnest-faced children too small to see over our counter, lifted up by their grown-ups to hand over their money; I’ve surprised people who didn’t expect me to have their unusual request in stock and surprised others into enjoying books they might not ever have read; I’ve met author heroes and been the polar opposite of disappointed, and read longed for books months before publication. I recently heard that a newly engaged couple first met in my bookshop; I’ve employed lots of wonderful, talented people, given them space, support and professional experience and delighted in seeing the exciting things they did next. I am incredibly fortunate to do the job I do. And the past 18 months have brought home just how glad my local community also feels in return for having an independent bookshop on their high street to serve their reading needs and more. Every community should have a bookshop! And engaged and passionate booklovers should be able to consider bookselling as a viable way to earn a living and experience the joys in the same way that I have.

Bookshops have been challenged by one thing or another for a very long time and have had to continually innovate to stay relevant. Many people see innovation in terms of technology - and there’s been plenty of that in recent months. Super-charged by the pandemic, we’ve had to implement the necessary tech to sell online, and fully enter a digital arena.

About a year ago, we were joined in this arena by Bookshop.org, the online platform providing the retail convenience that customers have been trained to expect whilst supporting the independent bookshops they love (but can’t always get to). To me, Bookshop.org was a creative and ethical response to the challenges of digital bookselling, and I was delighted to be approached to join its board before launch.

One of the aspects of Bookshop.org which isn’t as well understood is that it allows non-bookshop affiliates to sell books. And thousands of new voices have been able to set-up, curate and sell books to entirely new communities through online storefronts. It not only allows them to earn affiliate revenue they previously would have received through linking to Amazon (at a higher commission too!) but it swells the shared bookshop pool: every sale contributes to the independents on the platform.

Affiliates have also been able to convene a community around their book lists and recommendations. It was something that electrified me as a bookseller when I first saw it - here was an opportunity for people to dip their toe in the water of bookselling, to build a community and gain valuable experience. An on-ramp to potentially opening a bricks and mortar shop where the online community they created might be able to meet and smile and share in person.

Something like New Futures was in the back of my mind, even before Bookshop.org launched. Imagine if we combine the forces of change in the industry with the latest online tools to create new bookshops run by people who have not had the opportunities that I have? What if we supported people from underrepresented groups to make the transition - with confidence, their communities and industry connections - from virtual bookshop to a permanent place on the high street?

That is the ambition and potential of New Futures. It is the opposite of a criticism of existing bookshops. Instead it is a celebration of all that we do, what we offer, and a call for more - from people who may never have seen themselves running a shop, in the same way that until recently, large swathes of the population never saw themselves in stories and books.

When we come together to effect change, we do not lose our independence, we do not lose to increased competition: we expand the market, we increase the reading world and we combine our strength.

Yes, bookselling is tough. No-one should ever open a bookshop without understanding that. But equally, bookselling is an extraordinary and utterly unique profession. It is supportive, friendly and welcoming. If you’ve ever wanted a bookshop in your community that reflects who you are, and the values you represent, I would say - apply to New Futures. More importantly, please spread the word and help get this initiative out to people who may never see these words in The Bookseller.

A final thought: the majority of people don’t read books, have never visited a bookshop, and too many families have no books in the house. New Futures won’t solve this problem by itself. But in aiming to boost representation in bookselling, it’s a powerful start.

If you’d like to take part in New Futures as a supporting partner, get in touch with New Futures by emailing uk.support@bookshop.org or visiting www.newfuturesbookselling.com.

Fleur Sinclair is in her sixth year as owner of the Sevenoaks Bookshop in Kent, named Independent Bookshop of the Year at this year’s Bookseller Industry Awards. She is currently a Vice President of the Bookseller’s Association and sits on the board of Bookshop.org. In a previous life, Fleur trained in photography and worked in the fashion industry as a photographer’s agent.