The number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has grown for the third consecutive year, according to new data from the Booksellers Association.
As part of its annual membership survey, the BA revealed that the number of independent bookshops in BA membership at the end of 2019 grew to 890 shops, up from 883 in 2018, and up from 868 in 2017.
New independent bookshops that opened in 2019 include: Bookbugs and Dragon Tales, Norwich; Books On The Hill, St Albans; Goldstone Books, Carmarthenshire; Halfway Up The Stairs, County Wicklow; Maldon Books, Essex; and Dogberry and Finch Books, Devon.
In London, community bookshop All Good Bookshop opened its doors in Wood Green and 2019 also saw the launch of Pages Cheshire Street and Round Table Books, and Edinburgh welcomed The Portobello Bookshop and Topping and Company Booksellers of Edinburgh. Banner Books, County Clare; Our Bookshop, Hertfordshire; Pigeon Books, Hampshire; Read, West Yorkshire; and The Little Book Emporium, East Yorkshire also started trading.
BA m.d. Meryl Halls said it is "heartening" to see the number of indies in the UK and Ireland grow for a third year: "This is testament to the creativity, passion and hard work of our booksellers, who continue to excel in the face of challenging circumstances, particularly those wider high street challenges which so often see bookshops outperforming their high street peers. It’s enhanced by the news of Waterstones store openings during 2019; bolstering the bookselling community more widely."
Consumer confidence in bookshops, a thriving shop local movement and the green factor have all helped the resurgence, Halls told The Bookseller: "I think it looks like a sector in resurgence. The narrative about bookshops is that they are bucking the trend and that it’s a nourishing and rewarding career choice, albeit hard work, so that is part of it. The fact that bookshops have survived the Amazon firestorm is now a publicly accepted fact and that gives confidence to the sector, and to the consumers who use it. The conversation around high streets needing consumer commitment and investment must be getting cut through, encouraging people to think about setting up businesses within their own communities. And allied to that, bookshops’ contributions to society, the economy and to local culture go way beyond a standard retail story—where consumers have a really good local bookshop operating, it must make them think about what the halo effects are and what a meaningful thing it could be to do. So existing bookshops are clearly leading by example, and creating an attractive landscape for new entrants to consider.
"Shop local movements are definitely resurgent too. Community in a time of strife is of outsize importance, and with all the talk of healing and collaboration, that makes it more likely that people will cleave together, and want to reproduce something they may have thought they’d lost. High street groupings are getting better at promoting the benefits of shopping local and the media coverage of high-profile closures reinforces what’s at stake. Everyone shops online but nobody wants to live somewhere where there are no shops. They understand that high streets are more than just shops and transactions. People live busy lives and can see the benefit of local services and resources."
The rise of the savvy shopper has also helped indie bookshops at a time when consumers are looking to reduce waste and shop more ethically.
"Food miles, gratuitous expenditure, waste, re-use and recycling, are all aspects of the decision of how and where to shop," said Halls. "Ethical shopping is a real phenomenon, and that includes, but is not limited to, environmentalism. It has to be better for many reasons to go to your local high street and pick up goods that have been transported en masse to shops, than to have individual parcels thundering up and down the country in huge trucks from online companies. People want connections, and they want to reduce waste. The high street provides a chance to do both. It also allows local business to thrive, providing local employment, local colour, local commerce and a thriving place to live. There is also a sense that in a fully digital world, people have decided what they want digitally and what they want analogue, and books and bookshops are part of the pro-analogue choice."
But Halls warned despite the resurgence that bricks and mortar retailers are still under pressure, facing a business rates system in need of reform and issues around online competition.
She added: "We do however need to frame this positive growth in a wider context. Across the UK and Ireland, retailers still face issues around online competition and unequal business rates, all against a backdrop of uncertainty around Brexit and the economy. No high street can survive solely on bookshops; all retailers need to be supported and championed in order for the retail landscape to thrive. While the increased bookshop numbers are certainly a cause for celebration, we remain dedicated to campaigning for the new government to help protect the future of retail more widely. It is key that the difficulties facing all retailers are properly addressed and the high street supported, so that both retailers and booksellers can flourish."
Dan Fridd, who owns children's bookshop Bookbugs and Dragon Tales with his wife Leanne, said the couple were "ecstatic" about how trading had gone since opening in August.
"Its everything we dreamed of and Norwich really seems to have taken to us," said Fridd. "We have over 1,800 loyalty card-holders and receive wonderful comments from everyone that comes in. The conversations about books are joyous and experiencing the excitement from children in our space will never get old."
He added: "Christmas was exciting, we created a Santa's grotto in our event space and held an elf university day which was really successful. Schools seem to want to get involved which is going to be key to our success, especially now the January dip has kicked in. We've had classes coming in picking books for their libraries and attending our workshops which is great. There are lows (this week started with two sub-£100 days and schools going back hits us hard) and fears but we know we just need to keep building our customer base and help them form new book buying habits. Knowing there is such a supportive network of booksellers is great."
Jack Clark, who opened The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh in July, said he hopes indie bookshops continue to buck the nationwide trend which has seen retail sales fall for the first time in 25 years, according to The British Retail Consortium.
"The rise in indie bookshops is really heartening, and I hope they continue to buck fairly gloomy retail trends, and manage to weather any Brexit storms," said Clark. "Business for us in our first six months has been fantastic, not least because of the support of our community in Portobello and their very conscious efforts to shop local. Bookshops will always provide unique spaces unlike any other, and can appeal to all ages and backgrounds. For that reason I think they are well placed to withstand certain storms as they seem to be doing. Who knows what lies ahead for the UK over the next few years, but I really hope bookshops continue to do as well as possible."
Nic Bottomley, president of the BA and co-owner of Mr B’s Emporium in Bath, said: "Of course there is the focus on the number of shops opening but there’s a lot to be said for the ones that did not close, that might have done in previous years. The tide has turned and shoppers are more aware of supporting their high street and local businesses. To get that net rise, after so many years of bookselling in the face of Amazon, the recession, e-book growth, and a High Street that feels beleaguered, is really something worth celebrating."
The Bookseller is asking indie bookshops in the UK and Ireland to complete our annual Christmas trading survey. The Bookseller wants to know how trade has fared over Christmas to provide an accurate and up-to-date picture of the health of the indie bookshop sector. We also want to know what factors have boosted Christmas trading this year, how the general election impacted trade, whether rental and business rates are changing, and what impact Brexit is having on booksellers. Fill in the survey here.
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