New chapter of hope: Independent bookstores defy odds of UK nine-year high | Books

Michelle Jay ran an event business, but when the pandemic ended the gatherings, she decided to fulfill a long-held dream of opening her own bookstore. The reading tree began in May 2020 online only, but in April 2021, when lockdown restrictions eased, Jay opened up to the public.

“The response from the local community has been absolutely amazing, they really hugged us,” Jay said. “We are in the heart of the Northamptonshire countryside in the small village of Weedon so the location has minimal footfall and we are completely dependent on the local community.”

Jay hosts events including story time on Monday mornings for preschoolers and an after school happy hour where kids can pick up a book, cake and milkshake for £ 5. “It has certainly been a huge challenge to start a new customer-facing retail business during the pandemic, and coupled with a busy family life, it hasn’t been easy,” she said. . “But I love it and I’m so glad I took the plunge. I’m really optimistic about the future.

The Reading Tree is one of 54 new independent bookstores to have opened in the UK and Ireland over the past year, from Rare Birds Books in Edinburgh to The Ivybridge Bookshop in Devon, and The Athlone Bookshop in County Westmeath, Ireland at Storyville Books in Rhondda Cynon Taf. For the first time in nearly a decade, more than 1,000 Indies are open: it is a sector that thrives through thick and thin.

Between 1995 and 2016, the number of Booksellers Association (BA) member stores grew from 1,894 to 867 as the industry faced stiff competition from Amazon and financial pressures from corporate rate hikes. The number has grown slowly since and in 2021 reached 1,027.

Matt Steele, who runs the Ivybridge Bookstore. Photography: Matt Steele

Matt Steele, who has worked in bookstores in Hong Kong since the 90s, and last year “took the plunge” and opened the Ivybridge Bookstore. “Looking at the vibrant UK independent book and retail market, combined with the right time to come back here, I felt like it would be now or never,” he says. “There isn’t another bookstore within a 10 mile radius, and with so many schools, young families and retirees living here, we have wonderful customers. We have scheduled the opening for the last lockdown to end, and so far business has been stable. On the contrary, circumstances may have weighed in our favor a bit, with people buying more locally where they can rather than going to the cities. “

“Covid has been an undeniable driving force in this movement towards conscious consumerism,” admits Natalie Whittle, a former Financial Times reporter who also opened a bookstore, Outwith Books in Glasgow, last year. “I get a lot of people coming over the counter and showing me books on Amazon that they’re looking to order from us instead.”

“The biggest challenge is not the rise and fall of [Covid] variations but the lack of clear routines. Working from home, people’s days are more elastic than before, so it took some time to determine the patterns and compare our regular trade. And I have yet to figure out how to stop my containment puppy from barking when people come in! “

The growth of independent stores masks the fact that there have also been 31 closures in the past year – but readers have also voted with their wallets. The UK’s first black bookstore, New Beacon Books in Finsbury Park, announced on December 29 that financial pressures were forcing it to close.

But days later it was revealed that a crowdfunding campaign had raised £ 50,000 to help him move to new premises. Fundraising campaigns have also helped Book-ish in Crickhowell in Wales raise funds to buy its own premises, while Afrori Books, the first black-owned bookstore in Brighton, has opened in the fall after a crowdfunding campaign that raised over £ 12,000. The incentive platform Bookshop.org, meanwhile, is set to hit £ 2million in self-generated profits.

“After a few difficult years for the industry, it is reassuring to see the number of independent BA member bookstores increasing for the fifth year in a row,” said Meryl Halls, Managing Director of the Booksellers Association. “The fact that the number of bookstores can grow in the face of bottlenecks, restrictions and supply chain issues demonstrates the passion, innovation and determination of booksellers, who continue to bring books to readers even under the most difficult circumstances. more difficult ”.

But Halls warned that “Main Street is still in a precarious position, with a potential disruption to retail activity and consumer confidence on the horizon, the rules of the game are still skewed in favor of the giants. of technology and supply chains causing problems in retail “. She stressed that booksellers always need help.

She added, “We will continue to lobby the government to support booksellers and provide appropriate assistance and advice, and work with publishers and distributors to mitigate the effect of supply chain issues on bookstores. And, as always, we’ll work to inspire people to choose bookstores whenever they can. “

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