Independent booksellers face some of the toughest trading conditions for decades: is it any wonder so many are disappearing?

<p>Britain is no longer a nation of shopkeepers. The number of independent food, drink and tobacco retailers has almost halved over the past 11 years, according to research by accountancy firm Grant Thornton. The July study also showed that the independent retail sector suffered a 45% increase in the number of insolvencies during 2005 compared with the previous year. But the declining number of independent shopkeepers is not limited to food, drink and tobacco retailers: independent booksellers are also struggling, as shown by the Booksellers Association"s membership figures, which have fallen every year for the past three years. </p><p>In 2003, the number of independent booksellers in BA membership was 1,594; by June 2006, this figure had dwindled by 111 to 1,483. More than 50 independents--including Secession Books in Bath and Burgess Books in Hitchin--closed their doors in the first half of 2006 alone; if this rate of closure continues, independent bookshops could be extinct within 15 years. </p><p>Tim Godfray, chief executive of the BA, says: "High street booksellers in general have had a tough time this year; similarly, independent retailers in general are experiencing difficult trading conditions. The reduction in the number of independents in BA membership is a real concern. It is obvious that independent booksellers are facing tough competition from internet booksellers, supermarkets and the chains." </p><p>The growing dominance of supermarket and internet booksellers is a theme of Book Marketing Ltd"s Books and the Consumer report for 2005, which shows that volume purchases from supermarkets and the internet increased 63% and 151% respectively between 2002 and 2005. Over the same period, purchases from chain bookshops rose 14%, while the independent sector suffered a 1% decrease in growth. </p><p>Hard times </p><p>Bookseller Harry Wainwright, who has seen six local independents go under during his four-year tenure as manager of the Oldfield Park Bookshop on the outskirts of Bath, says that there are "very few ways in which the current retail climate can get any harder". "If you can compete and grow your business today, then you are doing very well," he says. "I cannot see the market getting any more difficult." </p><p>The BA's declining number of independent members may be attributable to a combination of factors, such as lack of succession (booksellers of retirement age cashing in and finding no one to buy their businesses), and bookshops withdrawing from BA membership but continuing to trade. Some of the shops that have closed may not have been dedicated booksellers, or may have downscaled their book stock; others may simply have been badly managed. </p><p>Anna Dreda, owner of Wenlock Books in Shropshire, winner of this year"s Independent Bookseller of the Year Nibbie, says that the loss of 111 independents over a three-year period "isn"t necessarily a bad thing". Echoing the sentiments of author Susan Hill, who recently conducted a tour of "depressing" and "infuriating" businesses, Dreda says: "We all know bookshops that are grim, with staff who don"t much care, dead flies in the window display, and paperbacks curled up and waiting to die on the shelves. If those bookshops are numbered among the 111, then we should be glad that they are no longer around, giving the rest of us a bad name." </p><p>However, the BA figures also represent well-managed bookshops that have been forced to withdraw by factors beyond their control--for example, Secession Books, described by Wainwright as "a brilliantly run shop". Secession, which enjoyed a prominent position in the Bath community, closed its doors in May because "trade was growing steadily, but not enough to support us", Hannah Reich-Levbarg, who ran the shop with her husband James, says. </p><p>Location, location, location </p><p>On the factors that led to the shop"s closure, she says: "Bath city centre can be traversed in five minutes on foot, and we were located between the high street and the Theatre Royal [a 30-second walk]. Despite this, many people referred to the shop as awfully tucked away or off the beaten track. Therefore, it was more a question of people being apathetic in this small town rather than trading from a clearly bad location." </p><p>She adds: "Contrary to a supposition printed in the Guardian, it was definitely not because of our proximity to a very good" Waterstone"s. Over our brief period of trading, we received almost daily reports about bad and wrong book data, slow or disappeared orders, and other poor services from the Waterstone"s in question." Secession had opened in order to take advantage of "the growing failings of the chains", and had built a loyal customer base among local book lovers. "There simply weren"t enough of them," Reich-Levbarg says. </p><p>Although she cites the "losing battle" of trying to change consumer shopping patterns as the main reason for the shop"s demise, city centre independents often have a harder time than their suburban counterparts which may be located in smaller towns where there are no chain booksellers. Wainwright deliberately chose not to open in the centre of Bath, where rents are two and a half times higher than rents in the suburb of Oldfield Park; he created the Oldfield Park Bookshop around the area"s heavy book-buying clientele of young professionals and families. </p><p>"The biggest contributors to the closure of independent bookshops are direct competition from the chains and a difficult location. You need between 200 and 300 loyal customers [depending on disposable income] who will come in regularly, plus passing trade," Wainwright says. </p><p>Of course, not even the best-located bookshop is immune to the deadly three-pronged attack from supermarkets, discounting and the internet. The convenience of ordering books online is hard for independents to replicate; and small booksellers are frustrated by the preferential terms offered by some publishers to supermarkets. The Peak Bookshop, for example, which closed its Sheffield branch in May, took pre-orders at &#163;10.99 for Fred Dibnah's biography, Fred by David Hall (Bantam, 2nd September, &#163;18.99, 0593056647), but had to refund customers when the local Tesco received stock before the independent and put the book on sale at &#163;8.97. </p><p>Dreda comments: "As the supermarkets cash in on the 'Richard&amp;Judy' effect, as and Google continue their takeover of cyberspace, and as the high street chains lure in rushed shoppers with their invidious three-for-two offers, the independent bookseller will struggle to find the footfall needed to sustain a decent customer base." </p><p>New bookselling breeds</p><p>Despite the apparently kamikaze trading environment, the past year has seen a number of start-up booksellers take the plunge--and initial reports are encouraging. In Dorset, the Highclif fe Bookshop, which opened on 1st June, has hit its targets for June, July and August; London"s Crockatt&amp;Powell is ahead of budgets for the year after eight months of trading; and Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath--which opened on 1st July near Secession"s old premises==has so far matched the figures in its business plan. </p><p>Nic Bottomley, co-owner of Mr B's, believes that there are two breeds of independent bookshop: those that serve a high street role in an area where there are no chain bookshops, and those that function as a "boutique" alternative to the chains by differentiating the focus and character of their stock more clearly. To this end, Bottomley--who can see the back door of Waterstone's when he looks out of his shop window--has a larger than average philosophy section for a shop of Mr B's size (1,000 sq ft), as well as strong drama, poetry and translated fiction ranges. </p><p>Phil Griffiths, manager of Metropolitan Books in Clerkenwell, says that the key difference between independent bookshops and the chains is the loyalty of their customers