Indie bookshop decline over, says BA

Indie bookshop decline over, says BA

The decline in independent bookshop numbers witnessed over the last decade could finally be halting, the Booksellers Association has revealed.

The trade body’s chief executive Tim Godfray said there had been a “slight increase” in its independent bookshop membership figures in 2017 to date.

Although the BA will not release official figures until early 2018, Godfray said in a letter to publishers: “The arrest in the decline in independent bookshops seems to have happened; the next year or so will tell us whether it is reversing.”

The news follows 11 straight years of net declines in independent bookshop numbers, during which time they have almost halved, from 1,535 independents in 2005 to 867 in 2016. Last year 32 independents closed, 21 opened and a further 16 did not renew their BA membership, bringing the year’s net loss to 27.

One reason indie bookshop numbers are looking healthier could be down to industry-wide initiatives like the Books Are My Bag (BAMB) campaign, Godfray said. The year after BAMB began, the net closure rate in January 2014 was 5.11% year-on-year, and by January 2017 it was 2.28%. “And in the calendar year of 2017 to date there has been – dare I say it – a slight increase in numbers,” he said. Godfray thanked publishers for their role in supporting bricks and mortar retailers.  “…This has been achieved, we believe, because publishers individually are giving booksellers a lot more support,” he said.

Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, agreed publishers had become more supportive of indie bookshops when it came to returns, credit terms and offering larger discounts on titles individual bookshops had been successful at selling. “There seems to be a renewed reception of indie bookshops, the recognition that they are really important businesses and can help significantly with breaking authors,” he said. 

However, Bottomley added that indie bookshops had also risen to the challenge of competition from Amazon. “Bookshops have becomes more and more creative, they hold more interesting events, make better partnerships in their communities and have essentially become more professional," he said. "They have sharpened their act because they have had to when faced with competition from Amazon, rising business rates, and huge economic uncertainty, for example with Brexit.”

Along with indie bookshop numbers looking up, Waterstones recently announced it was opening five shops before Christmas and Blackwell's opened a new store in Oxford in October.

Several indies have opened across the UK this year. Imagined Things opened in Harrogate, Rabbit Hole in Lincolnshire, Rother Books in Sussex, The Little Bookshop in Leeds, Fort William Bookshop in Scotland and the Woodbridge Emporium in Suffolk, among others.

The Little Bookshop opened in October to an “amazing response from the community”, said owner Cheryl Duffield. “It's been really good. We've had people coming in saying how happy they are to have a bookshop in the area,” she said.

Duffield owns The Little Bookshop with two others and explained running the store had been a “steep learning curve” because none of them had worked in a bookshop before.

“It has been massive amount of work,” she said. “It's been a big learning curve. We opened in half-term, it was very busy. Overall it's been really great, exhilarating, but also exhausting!”

Duffield and her team already have “lots of exciting plans for the future”, including hosting workshops and language classes in a room at the back of the shop.

Meanwhile, the Fort William Bookshop in Scotland opened in July. Owner Kevin Ramage said trade had gone "very, very well” since then.

“Business has been very good and the summer was good", Ramage told The Bookseller. He also expressed pride at the shop's social media following, which has amassed 2,000 Facebook likes in four months. The population of Fort William and its surrounding areas is 10,000, said Ramage.

He added that the retailer was the first indie bookshop in the town in living memory. "This is not just a shop re-opening, we’re breaking new territory", he said.

The shop is already planning to expand to another floor and host a big specialist selection on the outdoors.

Jules Button, owner of the Woodbridge Emporium in Suffolk which opened in May, said the shop was competing with a W H Smith on the same road. “We can’t sell any hardback books at all as they're selling cheaper them than we can buy them. However, we have found that some people are loyal and want to support indies,” she said.

In the next few months Button intends to develop a new website for the shop as well as launch a book and tea pairing scheme.

“We've trained as tea smiths as well, so we want to start pairing books with teas. We'll pair the book and tea depending on author or themes etc. For example, for a book set in India, might pair with a Russian Caravan; for an author who is herbalist or vegan might pair with Tisanes tea. We didn't want to specialise in coffee, because you can get coffee anywhere, but there's hardly anywhere sells really good quality teas.”

The BA will release official indie bookshop figures early in 2018.