The number of independent bookshops in the UK has fallen for the 11th year in a row, according to the Booksellers Association’s annual membership figures, but the rate of closure has slowed.
Indie bookshop numbers have almost halved in the past 11 years, according to the figures: in 2005 there were 1,535 independents and in 2017 there were 867, down from 894 in 2016. Thirty-two independents closed in 2016 and a further 16 did not renew their BA membership. However, 21 new indies opened, bringing the year’s net loss to 27.
A cocktail of pressures are responsible for the closure of indie bookshops, including rising business rates and rent (recently cited as the reason for the closure of The Theatre Bookshop in central London, which said its rent had risen 200%), competition from e-books and online retailers, and the rising popularity of other entertainment forms, such as Netflix and gaming.
Declining fortunes on the high street have also added to independent bookshops’ woes. However, BA c.e.o. Tim Godfray pictured said that the rate of closure for indies had slowed: 32 closures in 2016 was significantly fewer than in 2015 (46) and in 2014 (48). Moreover, indies with vibrant new twists to combat the pressures continue to open, while existing retailers keep pushing the boundaries of innovation to attract new customers. Octavo’s Book Cafe & Wine Bar in Cardiff, owned by Accent Press, opened in an old pub last June. It enables people to read books while supping alcohol, as well as serving food and offering craft activities. Bridge Bookshop in the Isle of Man opened a second branch, and former director of programmes at BookTrust, Louise Chadwick, opened Button & Bear Bookshop in Shrewsbury.
Libreria, from tech-firm accelerator Second Home’s Rohan Silva and Sam Aldenton, opened in east London’s Hanbury Street. Designed by Spanish design firm SelgasCano, it banned the use of phones in-store and stays open 24 hours a day on occasions to “play to the insomniac crowd”. Meanwhile, Winstone’s, the British Book Industry Awards’ Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2016, opened a third branch in Frome, Somerset, while Falmouth Bookseller owner Ron Johns opened another premises in Cornwall, called The Padstow Bookseller, with celebrity chef Rick Stein and his wife Sarah.
However, despite optimism around the vibrant new openings, Godfray said that “much more needs to be done” to level the playing field for bookshops in order for them to compete effectively in the marketplace. His call follows a report by business-rate specialist CVS which suggests that many indies will see their business rates soar in April when their revaluation is implemented, while Amazon will have its rates slashed in six of nine locations where its distribution warehouses are based.
“The fact that bookshop closures have slowed is encouraging and is testament to the innovative, creative ways in which bookshop owners are continuing to fight to stay on the high street,” Godfray said. “However, much more needs to be done to level the playing field for bookshops to compete effectively. The BA is fighting hard to address these issues, including making representations on business rates and unfair competition.”
Despite the decline in indie bookshop numbers in the UK, the BA’s membership figures are looking healthy overall, increasing by 248 outlets in 2016 to 4,729, boosted by new members such as the National Trust. It is the fifth year in a row that the trade body’s membership has increased: it stood at 3,580 in 2012.