Indie bookshop numbers rise for fifth consecutive year, BA figures show

Indie bookshop numbers rise for fifth consecutive year, BA figures show

The number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has grown for the fifth consecutive year despite challenges brought by the pandemic, the Booksellers Association (BA) says.

Released as part of its annual membership survey, the BA's  figures showed 1,027 shops as active members at the end of 2021, the highest number since 2013, a year which followed two decades of decline. The figure was up from 967 in 2020, 890 in 2019, 883 in 2018 and 868 in 2017. 

In total 54 new bookshops opened in 2021, while 31 closed, resulting in a net gain of 23, the figures show.

Among the new openings were Afrori Books in Brighton, Book in Leighton Buzzard, Bedfordshire, Bookhaus and Gloucester Road Books in Bristol, DNA in Norwich, Folde in Dorset, Outwith Books in Glasgow, Rare Birds Books in Edinburgh, Storyville Books in  Rhondda Cynon Taf, Wales, The Athlone Bookshop in County Westmeath, The Ivybridge Bookshop in Devon, The Reading Tree in Northamptonshire and Upper Street Bookshop in London.

“After a challenging few years for the bookselling sector, it is reassuring  to see the number of independent bookshops in BA membership grow for a fifth consecutive year," said Meryl Halls, m.d. of the BA . "The fact that the number of bookshops can increase in the face of lockdowns, restrictions and supply chain issues demonstrates the passion, innovation and determination of booksellers, who continue to bring books to readers even in the most challenging circumstances."

Despite celebrating the solidarity and resilience of booksellers, Halls warned the high street is still in an increasingly vulnerable position, threatened by online giants and a disrupted supply chain. 

“While we celebrate this good news as we head into the new year, it is important to recognise the context for this growth. The high street is still in a precarious position, with potential disruption to retail activity and consumer confidence on the horizon, the playing field still skewed in the favour of tech giants, and supply chains causing issues across retail. While booksellers continue to be leaders on their high streets and main streets, as evidenced in the research undertaken for the BA by the Institute of Place Management (IPM), they need to be supported in order to keep doing their important work. 

"We will continue to lobby the government to support booksellers and provide proper assistance and guidance, and are working with publishers and distributors to ease the effect of supply chain issues on bookshops. And, as ever, we will work to encourage the public to choose bookshops whenever they can.”

Carolynn Bain, founder of Afrori Books, which is the first Black-owned bookshop in Brighton, said the first few months in her premises on the Laines has been "exciting", with the shop attracting customers with a "genuine interest" in Afrori's events and ethos. However, she feels as though she is still finding her feet, and continues to worry about price competition.

"I guess like many other booksellers I wonder how we will every make this work when we are purchasing books at such a high price and trying to compete with organisations that sell at the price we buy," she said.

"There is still some opposition to the shop's existence and this is most evident in comments on local news articles. We have seen a genuine interest from the community with people coming in and moved to tears that we are here. There is a book in the shop called The Rapping Princess and so many times we have heard adults come in and say I wish that was around when I was younger. The Facebook group for booksellers has been a great place to chat to other bookshop owners, but it can be a very isolating industry and I am very grateful to my family and all the volunteers that are there for me to bounce ideas off and who give such invaluable input."

She added: "Over Christmas I was really touched by customers popping in to to say happy Christmas and even bringing us gifts. Some leaders from the Black community pitched in together and bought me a spa day! This month we start our book clubs which are selling really well. In fact one is sold out —  we are excited about the year ahead."