David Torrans notes an upside for No Alibis, the independent bookshop he founded nearly 25 years ago, during the stop/start pandemic trading conditions: “I guess my partner Claudia [Edelmann], bless her, has gotten to know the streets of Belfast really, really well.” No, Edelmann did not get a side hustle as a cabbie, but she became No Alibis’ primary local delivery driver as the shop built a new website and transitioned to an online and mail order business during the lockdowns.
This was partly born out of necessity, as Northern Ireland’s Covid regulations have been stricter than the rest of the UK’s. For example, when No Alibis launched its delivery service, it was forbidden from rolling out click-and-collect, unlike shops in Britain (this did match the tougher regime in the rest of the island of Ireland). Even at this writing, social distancing and indoor mask wearing measures remain mandatory in Northern Ireland, while England, Scotland and Wales have ditched those restrictions.
But another reason for its online pivot was to provide a personal touch to the community No Alibis has served for a quarter of a century. Torrans says: “A lot of the orders came from people who have been long-time customers, many who have been there from the beginning. Some are what you would call ‘senior’ in their years, so they were being cautious and wanted us to provide the service, and we were happy to do so. To make it work financially we would deliver to one area of the city per day—east Belfast one day, west Belfast the next, etc—so customers were unbelievably patient.”
And while No Alibis has been a focal point on leafy Botanic Avenue in the heart of the trendy, studenty Queen’s University quarter since 1997, its impact has been felt further afield, having first established itself as one of the UK’s best (maybe the best) crime specialists. It has long been an important stop for crime authors on tour—and those close to home too. The day before Torrans and I chat, Belfast author Steve Cavanagh popped in to sign copies of his newest Eddie Flynn title, The Devil’s Advocate (Orion), and in 2017 Torrans and his team launched the successful Belfast international crime festival, NOIReland. (NOIReland 2020 and 2021 have been Covid casualties, but “all fingers are crossed” for its return in 2022.)
The shop’s crime origins were both strategic and about personal taste. Torrans read English at Queen’s, and after graduation got a job running the fiction section at the university’s bookshop: “I have a typical bookseller’s story. I said to myself, ‘I’ll give this a go for maybe six months.’ But then I started thinking, ‘Jesus, I can do this, I love this, this is great fun.’ Thirty-two years later, here I am.”
He was still having fun after six years at the university shop, but felt it was time to branch out on his own. No Alibis has been at the same address since the beginning, but initially it had much less floor space. Torrans says: “I knew that if I was opening something that size, there had to be a niche, something that would attract people. And I loved crime—not strictly the Golden Age Agatha Christie-type material or the English procedural, but [noir masters such as] Chester Himes, Patricia Highsmith and Dorothy B Hughes. And you have to remember, in the late 1990s a lot of the really good, edgy crime stuff was either not being published here at all, or issued by indies such as No Exit Press. So we brought in a lot of American and European writers, and people started coming in because we had the kind of books you would never see in Waterstones.”
As the shop expanded over the years, so did the range; No Alibis has morphed into more of a general indie, although its sizeable crime section still makes up around a third of its stock. Torrans says: “As time went on we knocked down walls and got more shelf space, and customers would say that if we stocked a certain type of book, they would buy it from us. So we opened a kids’ section, a history section, general fiction... it was an organic change.”
Another development has been the publishing arm, No Alibis Press. Torrans laughs: “If you want to do something stupid, you set up a press. You’d think a bloody bookseller would know better, wouldn’t you?” Joking aside, the idea came around the same time as he and the team were expanding with NOIReland, and the rough template is based on the imprints set up by other crime specialist booksellers, such as Poisoned Pen in Arizona or Mysterious Press, the New York publisher that was launched by Otto Penzler’s The Mysterious Bookshop.
Torrans says: “Strangely enough, right from the very start I realised that I didn’t specifically want it to be a crime publishing house. Because, let’s be honest, there are enough fine houses out there supporting crime fiction and writers, and from a commercial perspective it might just be too risky to do something in that line.”
The tag line for the press is “uncompromising fiction” and broadly the list veers towards the literary, such as Ian Sansom’s collection December Stories 1, or Joanna Walsh’s recently released experimental novel Seed. That said, its launch title, back in 2018, was crime, of a sort: Gerard Brennan’s Disorder. The title was actually Brennan’s creative writing PhD thesis, which Torrans asked to read as No Alibis has a book-binding sideline and the shop was putting the manuscript together. He says: “It was just so brilliant, I thought, ‘We have to publish this book, this has to be our first.’ Yes it’s crime, but it’s sort of a satire on crime, a very dark satire of Belfast.”
Alive and kicking
Looking ahead, Torrans is keen to get back to hosting live events, not just to readings and book launches but back to its well-known music shows—“we have everything from jazz to classical to indie to hardcore”. It’s so well-known as a venue, in fact, that a couple years ago native son Van Morrison brought his friend Jimmy Page to a No Alibis gig. But Torrans doesn’t know exactly when that in-store return will be: “We’re being ultra-cautious. For in-shop events, we usually get around 60 people, but that’s a tight fit. Will people want to do that any time soon? I don’t think so. I’m not sure I want to do that. And besides, the regulations right now mean we could probably only host 15 people, and that’s just not commercially viable.”
As the shop moves toward its 25th anniversary next year, Torrans is remaining focused on the local: “Part of the reason for setting up the press was that it just wasn’t about the shop, but we knew local artists, designers and editors were also going to be supported in the project. So the process was about trying to broaden what we do as a bookshop. I’m very careful about polishing one’s own halo, but bookshops like ours, no matter where they are, rely on supporting the community. None of us are going to get rich. It’s about longevity and supporting your staff and customers.”