New chapter of hope: indie bookshops defy the odds to hit nine-year UK high

Michelle Jay was running an events business, but when the pandemic put paid to gatherings she decided to fulfil a long-held dream and open her own bookshop. The Reading Tree started out in May 2020 as online only, but in April 2021, when lockdown restrictions eased, Jay opened to the public.

“The response from the local community has been absolutely incredible, they have really embraced us,” said Jay. “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 runs events, including Monday-morning story time for preschoolers and an after-school happy hour where children can come get a book, a cake and a milkshake for £5. “It has definitely been a huge challenge, starting a new customer-facing retail business during the pandemic, and coupled with a busy family life it has not been easy," lei disse. “But I absolutely love it and I am so glad I took the plunge. I’m really optimistic for the future.”

The Reading Tree is one of 54 new independent bookshops to have opened in the UK and Ireland over the last year, a partire dal Rare Birds Books in Edinburgh to The Ivybridge Bookshop in Devon, and from The Athlone Bookshop in County Westmeath, Irlanda, per Storyville Books in Rhondda Cynon Taf. For the first time in almost a decade, più di 1,000 indies are open for business: it is a sector thriving against the odds.

Tra 1995 e 2016, the number of stores in the Booksellers Association (BA) membership dropped from 1,894 per 867, as the industry faced stiff competition from Amazon and financial pressures from business rate hikes. The number has slowly grown since, [object Window] 2021 reached 1,027.

Matt Steele, who has worked in bookshops in Hong Kong since the 90s, and last year “took the plunge” and opened the Ivybridge Bookshop. “Looking at the buoyancy of both the book market and independent retail in the UK, combined with the right timing to move back here, it felt like it would be now or never," lui dice. “There isn’t another bookshop within a 10-mile radius, and with a lot of schools, young families and retirees living here we have some wonderful customers. We timed the opening for the end of the last lockdown, and so far business has been steady. Se qualcosa, circumstances may have weighed in our favour a little, with people shopping more locally where they can rather than going into the cities.”

“Covid has been an undeniable driver in this movement towards conscious consumerism”, agrees Natalie Whittle, a former Financial Times journalist who also opened a bookshop, Outwith Books in Glasgow, l'anno scorso. “I get lots of people coming to the counter and showing me books on Amazon that they’re seeking to order from us instead.”

“The biggest challenge is not the the rise and fall of [Covid] variants but the lack of clear routines. Working from home, people’s days are more elastic than they used to be so it has taken a while to work out patterns and benchmark our regular trade. And I’ve yet to figure out how to stop my lockdown puppy from barking when people walk in!"

The growth of independent stores conceals the fact there have also been 31 closures over the past year – but readers have also been voting with their wallets. The UK’s first specialist black bookshop, Nuovi libri Beacon a Finsbury Park, announced on 29 dicembre that financial pressures were forcing its closure.

But days later, it was revealed that a crowdfunding campaign had raised £50,000 to help it move to new premises. Fundraising campaigns also helped Book-ish in Crickhowell in Wales raise money to buy its own premises, while Afrori Books, the first black-owned bookshop in Brighton, opened in the autumn after a crowdfunding campaign raised more than £12,000. The profit-sharing platform, nel frattempo, is about to reach £2m of profit generated for indies.

“After a challenging few years for the sector, it is reassuring to see the number of independent bookshops in BA membership grow for a fifth consecutive year,” said Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association. “The fact that the number of bookshops can increase in the face of lockdowns, restrictions and supply-chain issues demonstrates the passion, innovation and determination of booksellers, who continue to bring books to readers even in the most challenging circumstances”.

But Halls warned that “the high street is still in a precarious position, with potential disruption to retail activity and consumer confidence on the horizon, the playing field still skewed in the favour of tech giants, and supply chains causing issues across retail”. She stressed that booksellers still need support.

Lei ha aggiunto: “We will continue to lobby the government to support booksellers and provide proper assistance and guidance, and are working with publishers and distributors to ease the effect of supply-chain issues on bookshops. E, as ever, we will work to encourage the public to choose bookshops whenever they can”




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