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'Small is beautiful': How independent bookshops plan to survive – and thrive – in 'volatile' times

The number of independent bookshops dropped last year – but booksellers are fighting on. Here, two tell us what bookselling is like in 2024

Independent bookshops have had a "volatile" year. Credit: canva

The number of independent bookshops dropped last year – but booksellers have vowed to survive and thrive in a “volatile” economic landscape.

The net number of indie bookshops fell by 0.8% in 2023, figures from the Booksellers Association (BA) have revealed. At the end of last year, there were 1,063 indie bookshop BA members in the UK and Ireland – down from 1,072 in 2022 – though this is still a significant increase on lowest point on record of 867 in 2016.

BA managing director Meryl Halls said she was “sad but not surprised” by the decrease.

“It’s been a volatile year for openings and closures, with some shops coming to the end of leases, some having opened during Covid and not thrived,” she said. “We will continue our advocacy on behalf of bookshops and bookselling, lobbying government on crucial business supports we know are required.”

From hidden nooks to city-centre hubs, bookshops are the heart of so many British communities. Here, two independent booksellers tell us just what their job is like.

Hereward Corbett, The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop, Gloucestershire

https://www.instagram.com/p/C1NYURqMaf2/?hl=en-gb

Bookselling, 2023 style…

I work in The Yellow-Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, Gloucestershire. We have another branch in nearby Nailsworth, about five miles away.

Our shops are small, independent, general bookshops, and have been trading for about 15 years. There are about six people who work there, but I’m the only person who is full-time.

Both shops reflect the communities we serve, which are rural, mixed, and generally well-read. Having been trading for a number of years in what are essentially small catchment areas, either increasing our sales or reducing our costs can be pretty difficult. Over the last couple of years we have faced particular challenges on both fronts. Sales have become harder, and our costs have gone through the roof. It is a real challenge to survive.

If we relied on the business that walked through the front door, we would have closed years ago. The regular sales that constitute what most people see in the shops, the tables piled with new titles, shelves packed with books covering every subject under the sun, the flowers we have in the shop that feel so important to create the right atmosphere, and the cheerful, friendly, knowledgeable booksellers who try and get exactly the right book for each and every customer… all these are not enough to survive.

We effectively run three other businesses as well.

School orders have grown in importance for us ever since we opened. We now work with schools in roughly a 50-mile radius, from Bristol to Cheltenham and beyond. We take authors to schools, run book fairs, and create selections of books to match the curriculum or topics that teachers are working on. We’ve been doing it a long time, and schools trust us.

We also do a lot of author events. Some are small, from poetry evenings in the shops through to bringing big name authors to the biggest venues we can find. As well as giving our cash flow a boost when these go well, they also feel essential to us in nurturing the relationships we have with our customers. If we can put on great events with the best authors, ones who are really meaningful to our customers, that means that they don’t have to worry about going to book festival elsewhere – it’s happening locally.

And we have an online business – on our website as well as on bookshop.org. We started selling online during the pandemic, thought about giving up again last year, but stuck with it. Our online business showed growth of 20% in 2023 and made a small but significant contribution to our bottom line. But again, we think of it as being a way to help us talk to our customers, looking after those who have discovered us over the years, but who aren’t actually local. It also allows us to do things with schools that other indie booksellers cannot – wish-lists, suggestions lists, and so on.

We also do one other thing that isn’t exactly another business, but feels important to what we do: we give money away. From the local food bank and women’s refuge, through to supporting a local charity which works to support school libraries and literacy, we make sure that we do our bit. It’s the right thing to do, but it also helps our customers to know that when they spend with us, we support people and causes who matter to them.

What does the above add up to? When we look at the figures in the shops themselves, we’ve done ok. Between them our sales either match the rate of inflation, or beat it. Not by a lot, but enough to show that the business is pretty solid. Beneath those figures we can see that our average sale has gone up, but the number of customers has gone down: we have lost some of those customers who would buy a card or two, or maybe a single paperback. But, thankfully, we have enough customers who are able to keep pace with inflation and to whom we have been able to sell a little bit more. However, our costs have risen by more than inflation, which is why the 25% growth in revenue last year from schools and events is so important to us.

The schools business is low margin, time consuming and ties up large amounts of capital, but gives us good cashflow in quieter months (at least, it does when they pay on time), and the events business, whilst it’s very hard work and event management is a very different skillset, can deliver much needed profit to help sustain the shops.

Working in a bookshop isn’t exactly the ‘nice little job’ that many people think. It’s hard and demanding, and you have to be relentlessly focussed on profit. It’s a decent trade, with lots of wonderful people, and you’re working with products you love. It could be a whole lot worse.

Jo Coldwell, Red Lion Books, Colchester

It’s staggering to think that we have ‘outlived’ giants such as Woolworths, Debenhams, Wilkinson. Small is sometimes called beautiful but more importantly, it’s versatile and smaller businesses can react quickly to changes in the market. We offer strong customer service, curated lists and genuine community, built through knowing our readers. Internet competitors are no longer our main threat. As the high street shifts, with less retail and more hospitality, we are feeling a new threat, brought about through changes, in the sense and purpose of place, rather than a specific competitor. Losing Marks & Spencer last year led to a direct decrease in footfall from a particular demographic sector. High street banks will eventually go and we will see further loss. However, we are independent and we continue to react to change.

We are nurturing a younger audience (through our book choices, book clubs, events).  If eateries continue to dominate the high street we may consider changing our opening times to suit the diners wishing to browse bookshops before and after eating/theatre/cinema etc. We will resist this change but it’s something we believe will happen within the next 5-10 years.

Prior to 2020 we didn’t regularly update our website. We actively encouraged customers to ‘not use the internet, but to visit us instead’. In 2020, this policy changed overnight. We re-designed and re-launched our website and continue to see the benefits of this ‘other way’. There are customers who prefer to browse from home and to place orders out of hours and we are happy to deliver books via the post office or by hand. This year we have linked in with a local business who run an ‘e-Cargo’ service. This is an environmentally kind option where parcels are delivered by bike, within a 5-mile radius of the shop. More excitingly, our local council supported the service by funding any deliveries during December. This was hugely appealing to our customers and we saw the direct benefits of this.

We will continue to build on our bookshop community by offering in person events in our bookshop space: author events, book clubs, silent reading groups as well as non-book events such as an inclusive yoga class and a new ‘Death Club’ (tackling difficult conversations).  This human connection can’t be replaced and is the reason we continue to fight for bookshops’ rightful place on any high street.

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