How to plug a bookshop: Are independent retailers doomed to fail?

In the age of Amazon and the e-book, Charlotte Philby hears about some clever ideas that might yet bring a happy ending

Charlotte Philby
Saturday 15 September 2012 12:34

On the third Sunday of the month, Parisians descend on a corner of the Rue des Martyrs for Circul'Livre, the city's famous book exchange. Here, passers-by are encouraged to rifle through open crates, which have been neatly categorised by some of the city's dedicated retirees; in return, they are encouraged to deposit their old books, and – most importantly – promise that once they have finished with their acquisitions they will pass them on, "to give them new life". In the words of the English translation on the organisation's official blog, "they can either leave them in a public place, or bring them to meeting points".

The French are not alone. This side of the Channel, too, literature-lovers are turning out in force to operations such as 'Books for London Campaign', an initiative that the Mayor supports, which aims to place shelves in 700 Tube and railway stations, where passengers can pick up and deposit books for free. It takes its lead from the hugely popular international Book Crossing scheme, which sees some 10 million copies passed between 1.3m readers in 132 countries; not to mention local reading chains such as Pass the Book, where members deposit copies of their beloved stories in public spaces – on park benches or a seat on the bus – in the hope that others will find them. I became a beneficiary of this viral scheme two years ago in a tiny café in Somerset after stumbling, somewhat incongruously, on a copy of Gina Ford's Contented Little Baby, inscribed with the group's stamp and the instruction: 'Read Me and Pass Me On!'. It felt like being inducted into a secret club, and as I curled up with my new find, even the mantra of Britain's least progressive child-rearing guru felt strangely heart-warming.

But when it comes to putting our money where our mouth is, the story in Britain isn't quite so cheery… The independent bookshop, the traditional hub (up there with the pub) of the British high street and the heart of the publishing industry, continues to buckle under increasing pressures. Talk to the sellers and it is the same old story: the dissolution of the Net Book Agreement in 1997, which once dictated the price at which books could be sold to the public. Its collapse led to a surge of discounted online stores such as Amazon and the supermarkets; the influx of charity shops which pay heavily-reduced business rates and often get new books donated in bulk by chain supermarkets; and don't get sellers started on the rise of the e-book, with sales up by 366 per cent last year with a turnover of £92m. For many, it has proved impossible to compete.

In the past 10 years, the number of independent booksellers in Britain has halved; last year alone, 73 independents closed with just 36 springing up in their place. (Compare this to France, where from 2003-2011 sales leapt by 6.4 per cent and they now have 2,500 bookstores, with e-books counting for just 1.8 per cent of consumption. This is partly thanks to the government's attempts to ensure a future for independents with price-fixing to stop booksellers discounting French-language books by more than 5 per cent below the list price; and publishers themselves setting the price of e-books, as well as a number of state grants and loans to those looking to start up bookstores.) And yet, despite the gloomy UK figures, this side of the Channel there is some happy reading, too.

Last month, a report by the Booksellers Association found that contrary to expectations, the number of children's bookshops in the UK has risen in the past year, from 36 to 40. The act of reading a book, says Vanessa Lewis, co-founder of popular children's store Book Nook in Hove, could never be replaced: "We think that e-books are supposed to be this lurking threat, but we don't see that… You can't recreate the tactile experience of reading, the beautiful artwork you get and the experience of turning the page with a child on our lap."

Sales for grown-up literature continue to dwindle, but there is hope here, too. On high streets across the country, bookshops are fighting back and finding imaginative ways to attract customers, from bookshops with in-house ice-cream parlours and pirate ship-shaped crèches, to those with gift shops and on-site gigs.

Jill Holden, who has run Crediton Bookshop in mid-Devon for 30 years, is trying something different. At the end of the year she plans to retire, but with the next closest independent on the brink of closure, there won't be a small bookshop for 30 miles. Rather than letting go, the local people have pledged to take it on themselves. "In a market town like Crediton," Holden says, "the bookshop easily becomes a focal point of the high street. We act as a visitors' information point, we set up community events, you get to know your customers… For a small community those links are terribly important." As testimony to that, more than 60 people have signed up to donate their time or money to help run this fledgling project.

"We've got to do far more now," acknowledges Nick Bottomley, who co-founded Mr B's Emporium in Bath with his wife Juliette six years ago, finding countless ways to make their mark, with so-called Book Spas (see page 10) as well as launching the all-singing, all-dancing Bookshop Band. The general idea, he says "is that even for people who have a Kindle or an Amazon account, these shops offer something else". Bottomley is quietly confident about the next chapter: "We're going to end up in a world with fewer independent bookshops but the ones that are there are going to be much more robust and commercially viable".

In the Sydenham bookshop she opened with her late father in 1966, Geraldine Cox says she is "optimistic" about the future of her business – so much so that she's just signed a new 10-year lease.

"I still have moments of worry but then I look around the shop when it's bustling and I think 'This is what it's about. These people don't want to be in front of a computer, they want to be on the high street'. I have to believe that we're going to be OK."

‘Kids’ books are still special and affordable’

Vanessa Lewis

The Book Nook, Hove

“When we opened our bookshop three years ago people were like, ‘We’re in a recession, what are you doing?’, but we’d seen a niche. I used to be a teacher and my business partner Julie worked in publishing, and we noticed there was no specialist children’s bookshop in Hove even though it is a family-orientated area. From the very beginning we had a vision, not just of a bookshop, but of a place with a café and loads of events for kids.

We are two-thirds bookshop and one-third café, with a proper baby-changing facility; there is a pirate ship in the café where kids are supervised so their parents can browse properly while they play. Having people hanging out here really adds to the atmosphere, and a café where people can stop for a pick-me-up doesn’t just mean more coffee is sold, it gives people the option of pausing – rather than leaving – for lunch.

The children’s books market is very robust and we’ve built up a loyal customer base. Kids’ books are still an affordable and special gift. We do loads of different types of events, author events where writers and illustrators read their stories and do live drawing; kids get to meet their favourite writers and get their books signed. There is one boy who has been to every single one in two years. We have regular dress-up days and run junior and teen bookclubs – the older ones are quite discerning, they are always very honest about their opinions.

In general what independents offer that other retailers don’t is knowledge. We have lots of families coming in and saying ‘My child likes this, what else do you think they might like?’. The aim is to get a child to lose the computer game for half an hour and get them to sit down, read a book and use their own imagination.

We know that e-books are out there and that they’re supposed to be this lurking threat but we don’t see that. I don’t think you’ll ever take away the pleasure of looking at books.”

‘We don’t need to stock celebrity biographies’

Nick Bottomley

Mr B’s Emporium, Bath

“The future for independents is far brighter than is often portrayed, but it’s going to be a very different world. Having a high-street presence and stocking the same titles as the big shops is no longer enough to survive; independents have got to do far more. We are going to end up with a world with fewer independent bookshops than there were, but the ones that are there are going to be much more robust. We’ll end up with a range of bookshops, which are either vital because they are so hooked into their community – a hub-type location in a market town – or in bigger cities they have a distinctiveness that makes them a destination shop, aspirational places to go to and browse; in that way it doesn’t matter if you have a Kindle or an Amazon account, you can still treat yourselves to the real-life shopping experience.

My wife and I opened this place six years ago at a time when, financially, opening a bookshop was a bizarre thing to do. But we didn’t have to deal with the expansion of Waterstones and the like – that had already happened. We went in with a confidence in a blind-faith way that we would not be threatened because we were going to be something different.

Here, the idea is that our selection of books has to be distinctive; we don’t need to stock celeb biographies and the sort of thing WHSmith and Waterstones make hay with. We can be more idiosyncratic and sell books, we don’t need to fall into the trap of trying to compete by price.

Also, the ambiance of the shop is very important: upstairs we have a room full of armchairs which looks more like a salon, downstairs in the kids’ section there is a claw-footed bath rather than a table, and an entire wall wallpapered in Tintin, with lots of interesting nooks and crannies.

Every shop has to have its own vibe. Some are more academic and serious, others more chatty and have a drop-in feel like an old-fashioned post office. Ours is upbeat and occasionally flippant. We do lots of events; about two years ago we created the Bookshop Band Project, with local musicians whom we asked to write songs for our authors when they come here – so they play songs inspired by the author’s book in the intro to their talks. So far we’ve managed to reduce two people to tears.

We sell reading gifts, effectively repackaging books, such as a ‘reading spa’ where we sit with the customer and have tea and cake and talk through with them what they like and don’t like – then we choose things we think they might enjoy. They cost £55 and we’ve done 800 of those in three years, so it works. Our turnover has risen constantly, last year by 8 per cent. It shows it’s possible to make it work, but we can’t be complacent; there’s no magic formula, you just do everything you can to try to get people into the store.”

'When the high street starts to crumble, you're all in trouble'

Elaine Silverwood

SilverDell, Kirkham

"We are in the middle of a perfect storm, dealing with the explosion of e-books and Amazon and supermarkets who have a massive price-cutting operation, consciously using books as a loss-leader. When you take the issue of undercutting and downloads and add that to the general trend of people tightening their belts on the high streets – together with the bad weather this summer – things are really bad. That is why we have to fight. Last week I read that four more independents had closed. It is happening every week. We've been around long enough to know a lot of other bookshop owners; when you read their names and see that they've gone under it gives you a tummy wobble. We've been here in Kirkham, Lancashire, for 12 years and the diversification we have in place is exactly the same now as when we opened: we have a coffee-shop built into the bookshop and sell homemade cakes which are made by my mum and my brother; we import Belgian chocolates and sell cards and gifts. We've also got an ice-cream parlour with an open counter which you can look through from the shop; over the years I've been approached by many hotels and restaurants who want to sell our ice-cream but I keep it all here.

When bookselling was in its heyday there wasn't the same level of pressure that there is now on a business merely to survive, let alone turn a profit. Back then, you had the purist booksellers who pooh-poohed what I was doing; I hadn't come from the book industry and was a square peg in a round hole. But I knew that in a town like Kirkham we needed that diversification in order to survive, and it has proved the underpinning of the shop. In the past three years, since things have got particularly bad, I have also started organising author visits to schools across Lancashire. The spin-off from that is that I'm earning a living from selling books but countless head teachers and librarians say that as a result of authors coming into schools, more kids are reading.

Even so, I worry. You can become marooned on the high street; it doesn't matter how good you are at your job when other shops are closing around you. Shopkeepers support and feed off each other. When the high streets start to crumble, you're all in trouble. Charity shops don't help, they have all the tax exemption so they can exist in prime places on the high street, replacing shops which have closed down; some get excess stock from the big supermarkets so they have the same titles as me at the same time. Unlike people like us and like the butcher's and the baker's, they don't pull people to the high street."

'It's important that people feel at home in the shop'

Geraldine Cox

Kirkdale, Sydenham

"My father and I opened the bookshop in 1966. Sydenham wasn't a place anybody expected a bookshop to open. A woman put her head around the door and said 'How wonderful, a bookshop! But you won't make it here.' Lewisham is the second largest borough in London but there was no bookshop then – they've come and gone over the years - and now we're the only one.

Everything was slower in those days, everyone had more time; bookselling was a much more gentlemanly thing. Customers were content to order a book and be told they had to wait two or three weeks, now they want it today. When we started there no such thing as an ISBN – today each has an individual standard book number, so you can flick through the list of numbers to work out which books you have in stock – but then data was published in two books four inches thick, which came out twice a year and by time we got them they were out of date. It was a different world; we relied on publishers' catalogues and representatives from the publishers; there were no computers, no faxes, no e-mails. In order to give a better service my father would drive around central London collecting books directly from the trade counters in central London. I remember phoning a publisher and saying 'I've got a lady here who really urgently needs a book,' and she said, 'one of our secretaries lives your way', so she brought it in on the train. These days the secretary probably wouldn't even know which books they publish.

Computers made the biggest difference. Everything speeded up. The demise of the Net Book Agreement – at which point everything started to be based around price, with big chains competing more and more for a market – was particularly problematic. Before that, we supplied library books to Bromley and Lewisham council. Overnight the three biggest library suppliers in the country joined forces and we couldn't compete with what they were offering. At that point I wondered if we could go on.

The shelves I put up in 1966 are still here, but things have changed. In order to survive, we have become a destination. We've always sold secondhand and antiquarian books so people know they might find something different. Now we also sell cards and a few gifts: literary mugs, candles, cuddly toys, ceramic buttons, anything we like, which enables us to offer some element of surprise.

People tell me it's a nice place to come, we have lots of events: author signings, theatrical evenings; recently we had a Dalek day, and an absinthe tasting when one of our local authors wrote a book on absinthe; we started up Sydenham art festival, now in its fourth year; and we sell tickets for local events. It is all connected with books but also involves the community; it's important that people feel at home and meet friends in the shop."

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