Some of the UK and Ireland's more venerable and well-established bookshops, one of its newest and a brace of former overall champs are among the regional and country winners of the Gardners Books-sponsored Independent Bookshop of the Year (IBOTY) at the British Book Awards, a.k.a. the Nibbies. The nine shops—all praised by judges for their innovative responses to the pandemic—now go forward to the Nibbies virtual ceremony in the quest to be crowned the top indie in the British Isles.
The oldest entry on the list is South-east England winner Sevenoaks Bookshop, which has been trading in the Kent town for 73 years. Owner Fleur Sinclair, who bought the shop in 2015, and her team tackled the challenges of lockdown restrictions in a thoroughly modern way, quickly building a brand new transactional website, greatly expanding its social media reach and moving its popular events stream online. So successful was Sevenoaks during its lockdown periods that it doubled its floor space when premises next door became available and it increased staff numbers.
In contrast to Sevenoaks' longevity, the Ireland winner Tertulia from Westport, County Mayo, had only been trading for eight months when coronavirus struck. But husband-and-wife owners Brid Conroy and Neil Paul responded quickly with a range of measures that tapped into the local community links it had built since opening, such as launching its popular Tertulia TV YouTube channel, creating a membership scheme and founding a literary prize for local writers.
Tom Tivnan, The Bookseller's managing editor and chair of the IBOTY judging panel, said: "This was certainly the most difficult year of judging this award in Nibbies history and not because the pandemic was a body blow to indies. Far from it: though booksellers obviously would not have chosen the conditions of 2020, we were inundated with some of the strongest submissions we have ever seen. Across Britain and Ireland indie booksellers not only survived but thrived in the past year—dealing with the various lockdowns by nimbly pivoting their business models with creativity and flair.
"The most interesting thing was that while many of the shops moved to being online booksellers during lockdown periods, they did so while maintaining their identity, their support for their core customers and their links to local communities, perhaps proving that bookseller know-how and expertise will beat an algorithm any day."
The Midlands region was won by Five Leaves Bookshop, a radical bookseller and a fixture of Nottingham's city centre since owner Ross Bradshaw first opened its doors in 2013. Five Leaves previously won the Midlands region in 2018 and went on to claim the overall crown that year. The South-west England champ—Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights from Bath, founded by Nic and Juliette Bottomley in 2006—is on the hunt for its second overall win, too, having taken home the UK and Ireland gong in 2011.
The East of England champ, Red Lion Books, is a previous two-time regional winner and has been a mainstay of Colchester's high street for 42 years. Owners Peter and Sarah Donaldson were praised by judges for their outside the box thinking during lockdowns, with initiatives including moving their popular book clubs online, launching a bespoke range of Red Lion-branded tea and coffee and ramping up its "under wraps" mystery book subscription service.
London, North of England, Wales and Scotland all boast first-time regional/country winners. The London entry is Haggerston-based Burley Fisher Books, founded by Jason Burley and Sam Fisher in 2016. In 2020, the east London shop used the lockdowns to renovate its premises and while pivoting to e-commerce remained firmly rooted in its community. Unlike many shops, North of England winner Cogito Books of Hexham, Northumberland, eschewed launching a transactional website. Instead, owner Claire Grint and her team took a "still open, just behind closed doors" lockdown tack, encouraging customers to phone and email orders for a "personalised, curated approach".
The Wales winner is Griffin Books of Penarth, founded in 2014. Owner Mel Griffin and her team's adaptability was praised by judges for its flexible approach during lockdowns including remote working, diversifying its distribution when book supply became difficult and, during the Welsh October "firebreak", negotiating with a neighbouring "essential shop" to become a collection point in order to maintain its high street presence. Far From the Madding Crowd in Linlithgow claims its first Scotland crown. Owner Sally Pattle's shop's innovations included its Home Learning Zone, a suite of free resources for homeschooling parents; the launch of From Linlithgow With Love hampers, which featured gifts from not just her shop but other stores on the town's high street; and Wee Three Indies, a series of online events with two other Scottish bookshops.
The Nibbies virtual ceremony will be held on 13th May. The winner of the Independent Bookshop of the Year will also be put forward for the overall Book Retailer of the Year shortlist to compete against high street chains, supermarkets and online booksellers.
The full list of the regional and country winners is below. More information and links to the individual shops are here.
East of England
Red Lion Books (Colchester)
Tertulia (Westport, County Mayo)
Burley Fisher Books (Haggerston)
Five Leaves Bookshop (Nottingham)
North of England
Cogito Books (Hexham)
Far From the Madding Crowd (Linlithgow)
Sevenoaks Bookshop (Sevenoaks)
Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights (Bath)
Griffin Books (Penarth)