The Booksellers Association has reported a second year of growth in its independent bookshop membership, with 15 new shops joining the trade body in 2018.
The BA's numbers swelled to 883 independents last year, a 1.7% rise from the 2017 total of 868. This is the second consecutive year the BA has marked an increase in independent bookshop members; the previous year saw a lift of just one but this was seen as significant as it followed on from many years of declining numbers.
The 15 newly minted members of the association include 12 shops which opened in 2018, and three others which had opened previously but only joined the BA last year. However the number of BA’s indie membership is still languishing more than 1,000 shops behind the 1995 figure of 1,894, the year when the Net Book Agreement ended and the assocation's records began.
New members opening in 2018 included Books @ One in County Cork, Middlesex-based Brook’s, Glasgow’s Category is Books, Eaves and Lord Books in Powys, Cornwall’s Lost in Books, with two Bristol newbies Max Minerva’s Marvellous Books and Storysmith. The Bookmark has opened its doors in Hampshire with Somerset’s The Snug Bookshop and Café also joining the BA. The Stripey Badger Bookshop in North Yorkshire, Kent’s Top Hat and Tales with Vinyl Fiction in Manchester completing the roll-call.
The BA’s m.d. Meryl Halls applauded the figures while also calling for some caution, and urging the government to engage with indies. “It is extremely encouraging to see independent bookshops succeeding in 2018, demonstrating the creativity and entrepreneurship of booksellers in the face of difficult challenges," she said. "We are delighted for – and proud of – our incredibly hard-working booksellers. We do, though, also need to consider these figures in a wider context. Retailers generally are facing an increasingly challenging landscape across the UK and Ireland, and we all need the retail landscape to be strong.
“Bookshops (especially our larger members) continue to experience unequal business rates, and struggle alongside wider retail with unfair competition from online retailers, as well as post-Brexit uncertainty. In light of this, we ask the Government to take the steps needed to protect the future of bookshops and their high streets, considering the concerns of retailers and booksellers so they can both flourish.”
BA president Nic Bottomley told The Bookseller: “It feels like a movement, [the rise] is even more robust than I thought. Throughout the year we’ve seen so many applications coming in, we had lots of people talking about setting up shop and that has come to fruition It feels like there are a lot of people who want to get into the industry, and that story of people wanting to give it a go outshines the story of people needing to close.”
Bottomley, co-owner of Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, described it as “some severe trend bucking” following the much-reported high street woes including the recent fall of HMV into administration.
On the uncertainty of Brexit and general political confusion, he said: “When times are uncertain it’s worrying for anyone on the high street but books provide high value per pound, people are always wanting to spend money on books. Books allow you to understand the world and allow the power to escape it. When Brexit was announced, in our shop we had the highest ever sales with people wanting to understand the situation.”
One of the BA’s new indie owners, Sarah Brook, revealed that business has been “tremendous” since she opened Brook's in Middlesex with her husband Peter in August. “It is really wonderful,” the former HR director told The Bookseller. “There seems to be a big move away from online. People love the ability to browse and touch and feel the books.”
Brook's bookshop in Middlesex
She believes the store’s alcohol license and late opening hours (until 10pm) have helped bring customers in. “It is a real community space. People can come in and have a coffee, or you get people walking round with a glass of wine browsing for books. Booklovers like being able to come and have a glass of wine on their own while buying a book. We also have music playing in the background and it is all about creating an experience”
She believes that more indie bookshops will embrace drinks and later opening, as well as more niche bookshops specialising in particular genres, and is confident about 2019. “I am optimistic about independent bookshops for 2019. I think more people will open up stores as they will see more people being successful.”
Bottomley believes that the strength of Waterstones, which recently opened two new stores in Westfield London and Wokingham, helps boost the power of indies. He revealed he has enjoyed a “harmonious, competitive relationship” with a nearby store since opening Mr B’s 12 years ago. “Now the battle line is between the high street and online. It is not Waterstones versus independent… Twenty years ago Waterstones used to be more aggressively acquisitional whereas now it makes concessions.”
Like Halls however, Bottomley urged some caution. “The theme for bookshops for 2019 has got to be how do capitalise on that not think ‘great, everyone is always going to come to the bookshops’ because that’s not the case," he said. "It is about what are we doing right at the moment and what are going to do when Brexit hits on 29th March because bookshops are going to be really important then.”
On government measures called for by Halls, Bottomley said: “We have some good first steps, the relief in business rates in April which should give a third off. But beyond that, it is a lot about empowering councils to be sensible about rates and parking permits and the balance between environmental sustainability, and ensuring people can drive into town to buy books. And there is the old chestnut of taxing Amazon the right amount and not taxing everyone else too much.”
Retail chain Marks and Spencer joined the BA last February, bringing the total number of the association’s members to an all-time high of 5,029. The chain boosted the association by more than 300 members.