Independent retailers: An extended shelf life

Despite fierce online competition, independent bookshops are proving remarkably resilient. Roger Trapp reports
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At a time when Amazon and its low prices are just a click away from most homes, the supermarkets are selling bestsellers at deep discounts and even established high street presences, such as WH Smith and Waterstone's, are resorting to repeated special offers to draw in customers, opening an independent bookshop does not look like the smartest thing to do.

And yet, figures from the Booksellers Association published earlier this year show that, in 2007, 81 new bookshops opened – more than cancelling out the 72 that closed. This net increase of nine is a direct reversal of the previous year, says Meryl Halls, the Association's head of membership services.

While she stresses that it is too early to say that this is a new trend, she accepts that the news is encouraging after "the steady but slow decline" that the independent book trade has experienced since the ending in the mid-Nineties of the net book agreement, which was an arrangement between publishers and retailers that fixed the price of books. Moreover, recent months have seen some high-profile closures, including the Peak Bookshop in Derbyshire and the Pan Bookshop of London's Fulham Road.

However, just as in other areas of business, it appears that independents can win customers through focusing on such areas as providing exemplary service and meeting local needs.

According to Nash Robbins, who runs Much Ado Books in the picturesque Sussex village of Alfriston with his partner Cate Olson, there is another vital ingredient. "If you're trying to run an independent bookshop you really have to have an aesthetic." By this, he means that the shop needs to have a particular approach and to accept that it is not going to appeal to everybody and cannot compete with the large multiples through trying to stock all the best-sellers.

Much Ado – which after just four years in business is the current Independent Bookshop of the Year – makes much of its proximity to Charleston by stocking an extensive range of books by and about the Bloomsbury Group. It also sells second-hand and antiquarian titles alongside new books. Then there is Olson's eye for quirky books, often published by independents, honed through more than 20 years in the trade, initially in her native United States.

A similar story is told by Jonathan Main, who for the past decade has been running The Bookseller Crow in south London's Crystal Palace with his partner, Justine Crow. He stresses that he sees little point in traditional independent bookshops competing with Amazon, the supermarkets and the chains for the high-street shopper who typically buys only a handful of books at Christmas. "The one sure thing is you can't please all the people and so it follows that you need to define your demographic and sell to them," he says.

He reckons that he knows the shop's 30 best customers personally – to the extent of knowing the names of their partners and how many children they have and exchanging telephone calls and e-mails. And there are another 30 or so who e-mail him regularly. About half the customers know him on first name terms. "The trick here, of course, is to turn the customers who start off at the casual end of the spectrum into the ones in or near the top 30. Of course, not all of them will, but the few who do are our livelihood."

At the same time as the proprietors of bookshops are realising that customer service is key, the distributors are refining their business. As Halls of the Bookseller's Association points out, the now frequently available next-day delivery means that bookshops can appear to have almost limitless stocks – putting them on a par with Amazon in terms of the availability of even reasonably obscure titles. The added benefit, adds Halls, is that customers do not have to wait in for the package to arrive and can pick up the book as part of their regular shopping – which, of course, provides the bookshop with another opportunity to attract their attention.

Even the internet, which spawned Amazon, is not all bad news for independent booksellers. Much Ado has a lively website that visitors can use to buy books, to browse through recommendations and to see what is going on, since – in Olson's words – the shop's name is meant to imply that there is always something happening. At The Bookseller Crow, Main has acquired a reputation for spotting books that have struck a chord in the United States (often before UK publishers have cottoned on) and importing them. He says: "The website and particularly the blog [in which he writes about the book trade and makes many references to other blogs and internet sites] work really well at communicating with customers. I am constantly amazed at the number of people who say they read it, or make reference to it in conversation."

Like Much Ado, The Bookseller Crow holds an increasing number of events and the website advertising (virtually the only form of promotion) generally ensures a full house.

Nobody is suggesting that the decade of deregulation that has followed the collapse and eventual outlawing of the net book agreement has created a bonanza for independent booksellers. Even publishing events, such as the much-anticipated publication of the latest Harry Potter book, that might have been expected to boost the fortunes of the trade have turned out to be what Halls calls frustrating because the deep discounts offered by the supermarkets and other multiples wipe out any profit.

But for those prepared to take a different approach and to work hard at developing an online presence, to be willing to sell T-shirts and coffee mugs, to even – in some cases – open a café or offer coffee and tea to customers there is a market out there. Michael Neil, managing director of the books wholesaler Bertrams, was quoted recently as saying that shopping at independent bookshops was part of "a thirst for authenticity".

And with the large multiples appealing less and less to the real book lover, the independents might just turn out to be in a niche whose time has come.