Lambeth indie bookshop closure highlights fragility of UK high street, says BA

Lambeth indie bookshop closure highlights fragility of UK high street, says BA

Independent bookshop Travelling Through has shut down following five years of trade, as Booksellers Association m.d. Meryl Halls says the closure has highlighted how "fragile our high streets are". 

The travel bookshop, which also boasted a cafe, bar, book club and cultural space, shut its doors on 31st May after five years of trade following the sale of its building in Lower Marsh, Lambeth. Travelling Through owner Emma Carmichael said initial uncertainty over the new landlord's plans for the building, a change in footfall and online competition all contributed to her decision to close.

The shop categorised its books by location rather than genre and endeavoured to stock ethical products where possible, sourcing stock from suppliers with direct links to small socially-aware cooperatives. 

Halls said: “The closure of an innovative London indie, hot on the heels of the closures of Camden Lock and Wenlock Books, throws into high relief yet again how fragile our high streets are and how difficult it can be to build a bookselling business, particularly in cities with their high occupancy costs.  

"We are really sad to lose Emma and Travelling Through from bookselling and obviously wish the team well.  We’ll continue fighting to make bookselling ever more viable and to improve the landscape for booksellers of all types and sizes. Bookshops are the literal shop window to the world for all our wonderful publishing and writing and we need to pull together as an industry to celebrate them and invest in their success.”

Travelling Through owner Carmichael said a series of factors influenced her decision to stop trading. She told The Bookseller: "Lower Marsh is changing, hotels have been built and footfall is changing. For a bookshop there are too many uncertainties about where it's going and who is my market. The bookshop experience has been fantastic and I've enjoyed every moment of it. The community was great but the bottom line is more people are buying online. Books are seen as cheap commodity rather than something of value. If you can get it for £2.99 on a Kindle or Amazon, they will do that but perversely we have a situation where people will spend £2.40 a day for a coffee. I think Brexit is also playing a part, people are being more careful with their money." 

Carmichael added there were some days when the bar and cafe element of the business made more money than the bookshop and said bookshops need to change their outlook. "In the wider context I believe for bookshops to survive, they need to have a 21st century outlook. The world is changing fast and peoples’ habits with them - where does the bookshop sit within this environment and how can it thrive. A complete change in attitude is needed and collective thinking to drive a new path and paint a new face for bookshops in a very challenging market place," she said. "It means re-defining and understanding better what the customer thinks they want i.e. nostalgia, cosiness, books; and what makes these same customers not just dreamily walk around and then out the door to drink a coffee or wine next door but to stay and spend their money in the store. For me though, it’s a change of direction, once again."

At times, Carmichael had up to seven staff on her books with a mixture of temporary, part-time and full-time employees. "With full-time staff you have to start paying pensions and it was just another cost," she said. 

Carmichael added it was also difficult to discount books. She said: "The minute I put 40% off guidebooks, it pulled in lots of people into the shop but I was barely breaking even. If I kept discounting I could never pay my staff and in the long-term it's unsustainable." 

Moving on from the bookshop, Carmichael hopes to continue the Travelling Through brand, with the Travelling Through press which she set up to publish her own book, Driving Tito: Through the Balkan Backroads with a Celebrity, which tells the story of Carmichael's journey across the Balkan Peninsula in an old Zastava in 2009. "It's early days, but the angle I'm taking is women and independent travel and inspiring women who feel they can't go travelling by themselves, that they can," she said. "You don't have to be a big brave explorer type to go and see and enjoy a bit of the world." 

Travelling Through is the most recent indie to announce its closure. Camden Lock Books will close next month after 18 years of trading in London's Old Street, partly due to pressures from rising business rates and rent. Wenlock Books in Shropshire will shut down on 30th June thanks to difficult trading conditions and a lack of footfall. 

The closures come after the BA reported a second year of growth in its independent bookshop membership, with 15 new shops joining the trade body in 2018. But indies face ongoing pressures from business rates, online competition and subdued consumer spending.