When Simon and Gill Edwards decamped from Somerset to North Yorkshire to open an independent bookshop in 2009, more than a few people told them it might not be the wisest endeavour.
It was, after all, a hugely difficult time for indies as e-books, Amazon and deep-discounting supermarkets were in the ascendancy.
But the couple persisted, partly for personal reasons as they were moving to be nearer to Gill’s parents and Ripon—the pretty, cobbledy cathedral town north of Harrogate where they settled—had excellent schools for their kids. Simon says: “A lot of people said, ‘Don’t do it: e-books are going crazy, Amazon’s getting crazy, everything will be digital—blah, blah, blah.’ But we’d always kind of had the dream to open a shop. We used to go to book events and there would be strange people called booksellers who seemed to have a mad gleam in their eye—they all seemed to be courageously independent and happy doing their own thing.”
And for Simon there was something of a professional challenge. He had previously worked in senior roles at W H Smith, Nielsen BookData, Book Industry Communications and as a freelance book trade consultant, where a lot of his career revolved around bookshop and library supply. But he also worked with indies on how to thrive in a rapidly shifting landscape. He says: “I used to advise shops with all sorts of stuff; I guess I decided that I needed to try it for myself.”
Twelve years on and The Little Ripon Bookshop is prospering, having quickly established itself at the core of the community with those key ingredients that can make an indie shine: astutely curated stock, lively events and links with local schools. Little Ripon stepped up a gear three years ago when a premises next door became available and the shop was able to almost treble in size. Simon says: “The original shop was small—we named it The Little Ripon Bookshop for a reason—and we suddenly had lots of space where we could really do all the things we wanted to do and not be quite so constrained.”
And then there were the changes over the past year and a half, which of course had more than its fair share of stresses. Little Ripon, like a lot of shops, pivoted to home deliveries and online orders. It only shut down for one week, early in the first lockdown when Gardners stopped supplying books: “You can’t really run a bookshop without stock,” Simon says. Events were run virtually, including its Great Book Hullaballoo, an annual summer reading scheme which it runs for hundreds of kids—and that translated very well to Zoom. Edwards adds: “We essentially flipped everything we did and it seemed to work. And what we discovered was that if you made the effort to go and deliver books to people, it made closer connections when we reopened.”
Little Ripon also signed up to Bookshop.org, which Edwards is happy with: “There have been online alternatives [for indies to link with] in the past but the commission was very small. But Bookshop.org has been great as a way to uncouple that automatic link for customers, that online equals Amazon—and their commission is very generous. So, it’s been a game changer.
“There is always the niggle with any new online business that in 10 years’ time they may become another Death Star. But I think Bookshop.org are serious about their governance and objectives, that they are here to support indies. My only real worry is that they aren’t taking business away from Amazon but Waterstones and Blackwell’s. That’s probably why [Waterstones m.d.] James Daunt came out so strongly against them. And we indies need a healthy Waterstones as without them, you won’t get the print runs [from publishers].”
A steady restart
Even with the so-called “freedom day” (19th July) that spelled the ending of Covid restrictions in England, Little Ripon did not rip the masks off, keeping social distancing rules, sanitisation stations and plastic screening in place. “We’re being cautious. Not least because the law is that if someone comes in who tests positive, we would have to shut for 10 days. We’re obviously planning now for events, and starting to sell tickets for some things that are happening in the autumn. But we hadn’t planned anything for July or August, as everything was still up in the air and you really need about six weeks to market an event. If we suddenly had to go back to, say, half-capacity for events then the economics just don’t work.”
For the long term, the Edwardses are thinking about their next step and perhaps even that one of the next generation might want to take over the business—daughter Phoebe is currently working in the shop on marketing, web design, events and “a lot of the creative stuff we’re too old to do”. But that is a long way off. In the meantime, they are focusing on doing their best to make their shop a point of difference: “Indie shops weather the waves, don’t we? E-books, Amazon, the pandemic... and now you wait for the next one. But we’re pretty optimistic about the future; bookshops are an antidote to all the screen time we do now, and what we have with beautiful premises won’t ever be able to be offered online.”