Indie bookshops vie for The British Book Awards title

Indie bookshops vie for The British Book Awards title

A bumper crop of Britain and Ireland’s best independent bookshops are bucking the market trend, achieving double-digit sales rises in 2017.

The Bookseller can today unveil the 39 indies to have made The British Book Awards’ Independent Bookshop of the Year regional shortlists, spanning Scotland, Ireland, London, the East, to Wales and the Midlands, the North, the South-East and South-West. The lion’s share of those to have made the cut achieved year-on-year revenue rises in 2017, despite the market as a whole dropping by 2.6% in volume, to 189.8 million books sold, through Nielsen BookScan’s Total Consumer Market. Last year the value of those sales was up 0.1% in value, to £1,592m.

Among those to enjoy double-digit sales rises in 2017 were Pages of Hackney in east London, with revenue up 30%; Linghams Booksellers in Heswall, Merseyside, with turnover up 10%; Warwick Books in the Midlands, with sales up 15%; and Drake—The Bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees, with revenue soaring 36% year on year.

The news comes as the Booksellers Association (BA) revealed its annual membership figures for 2017. There was a net rise of one in the number of UK-based indie bookshops in its membership—the figure stands at 868—after 39 indies opened their doors in 2017 and 25 closed. (The unaccounted-for 13 opted not to renew their BA membership). It is the first time in 22 years that the number has not fallen. The BA statistics also paint a rosy picture for chain retailers, with the trade body’s overall membership figure soaring by 300 after Marks & Spencer joined the organisation, bringing its total number to 5,029—the largest in its history. Multi-chain members such as Waterstones also boosted the figures; the James Daunt-led chain opened five new branches in the run-up to Christmas, for example.

White Rose owner Sue Lake with pupils from nearby Cundall School

The key to success
Many of the regional indies shortlisted achieved revenue boosts through unique marketing and community outreach strategies. Chicken and Frog Bookshop in Brentwood, Essex, saw its sales grow by 20% in 2017, driven in part by its Give a Book scheme. Owner Natasha Radford said: "Our sales were also up 50% at Christmas year on year, which was absolutely mad. We ran a scheme called Give a Book, so customers could buy a book and we gave it to local children in care, working with the Children First Fostering Agency. That definitely gave a big boost to our Christmas sales. I would also say that we are more established in the community, so people know to come and do some Christmas shopping with us."

The Bookshop in East Grinstead, which saw sales growth of 6.1% last year, launched a book club, which increased sales by 30 to 40 units a month, "many of them hardbacks", explained manager Sarah Gillett. The outlet also launched a Buy a Book for a Stranger scheme, with titles being donated to hospitals, and [we] began hosting a chess club, which brought new faces into the store. During Independent Bookshop Week we asked our customers to Buy a Book for a Stranger and [we] took the books to the hospital," said Gillett. "We were blown away with how generous people were. They were ordering their favourite book to give away, not just picking one from the shelves."

Meanwhile, The Book Hive in Norwich extended its reach in the city by launching a "mindful reading" initiative called Page Against the Machine, teaming up with bookmark-zine Dog-Ear and design company Back to Front to create post-work quiet reading sessions designed to “fight back against the stress of modern life and boost well-being”. Designed with the aim of giving locals the space and time to “find solace in books”, the shop opens later on Wednesday evenings to provide readers with comfy seats, glasses of wine, cups of tea, and “no distractions”.

Bookseller Joe Hedinger said: "The concept is so simple and really starts to re-imagine what the space of a bookshop can be used for, and explores alternative ways to use events to build a community," he said. "When you hear people saying it’s helped them read more books, or helped them relax, you know it’s working on multiple levels. It has brought in more revenue and people are sharing books and meeting each other."

The Book Hive also partnered with local coffee shop Little Red Roaster to provide book recommendations on packets of the company’s coffee. In return, the shop offered free samples of the coffee to customers on Saturdays.

The shop achieved notoriety in 2017 after author Susan Hill cancelled an event there, claiming the shop had an "anti-Trump bias" as a result of its decision to co-operate with a local book club to distribute dystopian literature in "solidarity" with those protesting against the US president. The fallout led to widespread press coverage and the bookseller’s owner, Henry Layte, speaking on national radio about the incident. Far from damaging the shop’s reputation, it contributed to a sales increase of 18.5% year on year in the month it took place (March), Hedinger said.


The Book Hive, in Norwich, reported sales rises, while kids' outlet The Alligator's Mouth used eye-catching branding to promote its wares

Other indies have also been savvy in partnering with local press and media to raise their profile, such as the Chicken and Frog’s Rashford, Kenilworth Books’ Tamsin Rosewell and Sue Porter of Linghams Booksellers. Porter, for example, regularly reviews books for BBC Radio Merseyside.

Success is not always down to eye-catching marketing ideas, though. For many retailers it relies on paying close attention to the nuts and bolts of solid, traditional bookselling.

Peter Donaldson, co-owner of Red Lion Books in Colchester, which is celebrating its 40th birthday this year, explained: "Last year our turnover was up 3.4% and we had some margin growth as well. In today’s bookselling climate that was a successful year. What helped was paying attention to refreshing stock, making sure the stock fitted with what our customers wanted, which gave the shop a distinct feel. We don’t tend to sell a lot of celebrity books, for example, but do really well with non-fiction."

For Sue Lake, owner of the White Rose Book Café in Thirsk, which has been open for 22 years and is enjoying its third successive year of like-for-like growth, the key is down to refreshing the stock mix. "Focusing on local interest, children’s, new fiction and natural history has resulted in a 35% increase in book sales over 12 months. [It’s been] a result of encouraging staff choices [to be featured in] promotions and working closely with selected publishers," she said.

Holding firm
For other bookshops, their 2017 story was about triumphing over adversity to stay in business. Rachael Rogan of Rogan’s Books in Bedford was forced to move premises in May after severe flooding from the outlet above closed her shop for more than four months, with a crippling affect on the business. To keep the firm going, Rogan held pop-up events at school fairs, hosted author appearances at festivals and ran an unofficial ordering and collection service from her spare room. The bookshop is now located in "shiny new" premises on Castle Lane and is seeing a "phenomenal" growth in footfall and turnover, Rogan said.

Despite battling rising business rates and competition from online, e-books and rival media content, many of the best regional indies shortlisted have achieved revenue boosts through unique marketing and community outreach strategies.

However, despite the current confidence around the indie sector, the BA’s incoming managing director Meryl Halls has warned policymakers "in the strongest terms" to not be complacent, with several unsolved issues threatening the future of bookshops. "We sincerely hope that the 2017 figures are a sign of things to come for the bookselling sector," Halls said.

"We must state in the strongest terms that there is still much to be done by the government to support bookshops and enable them to flourish in today’s competitive market. Today we have 868 independent bookshops in membership. In 1995, the year when the Net Book Agreement ended, we had 1,894. The BA will be continuing to lobby the government around issues such as unequal business rates, unfair competition, and beyond, in 2018."

The shortlists

Gosh! Comics (pictured above)
The Alligator’s Mouth
The Kew Bookshop
London Review Bookshop
Pages of Hackney
Al Saqi Books

Wales and Midlands
Five Leaves Bookshop
Octavo’s Book Café & Wine Bar
Kenilworth Books
Warwick Books
Griffin Books

The Little Ripon Bookshop
The Grove Bookshop
Linghams Booksellers
Drake—The Bookshop
White Rose Book Café

South-East England
Chicken and Frog Bookshop
The Bookshop, East Grinstead
Mostly Books
The Book Nook
Red Lion Books

East England
Bookmark Spalding
The Book Hive
Rogan’s Books
Kett’s Books

South-West England
Mrs Middleton’s Shop and The Rabbit Hole
Westbourne Bookshop
Owl and Pyramid Children’s Bookshop
The White Horse Bookshop
Hunting Raven Books
The Edge of the World Bookshop

The Blessington Book Store
Woodbine Books

The Edinburgh Bookshop
Far from the Madding Crowd
Golden Hare Books
The Orcadian Bookshop
The Highland Bookshop

Which is your favourite shortlisted independent bookstore? You can give us your feedback by clicking here

You can visit the official British Book Awards website here.