Inside the indie bookshop that opened its doors four days before lockdown

The Hastings Bookshop will be forced to close this week. But owner Charlie Crabb believes that independent booksellers can shine despite Covid-19

In a hastily arranged press conference on Saturday evening, Boris Johnson delivered a lockdown bombshell that means non-essential shops were forced to close their doors in England from Thursday November 5. Barely 12 hours later in East Sussex, Charlie Crabb opened his brand-new independent bookseller The Hastings Bookshop.

It may seem a bizarre time to open a high-street business. Covid-19 has destroyed the footfall that so many shops depend on and analysts at the Local Data Company revealed this week that as many as 18,000 premises could lay vacant following the Covid-19 crisis, almost double the number of empty units seen in 2019.

But Charlie told The Big Issue that he has plenty of optimism despite having to close his shop just four days after opening.

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Having roped family members into the five-week race against time to renovate the shop in time for launch, Charlie will be running things solo throughout the lockdown.

“I always wanted to open my own bookshop,” said the 23 year old. “But there’s always been some reason not to do it, I suppose.

“And then, during the first lockdown, I saw how well independent bookshops were doing compared to companies like Waterstones or other chains where their online system couldn’t actually keep up with the demand.”

And his experience working at Waterstones and other bookshops has bolstered Charlie’s belief that David can give Goliath a bloody nose this Christmas, as indie shops prove more nimble than the book behemoths who dominate the sector.

“I just realised that the future of bookselling was in small, local independent bookshops, which have a really close relationship with their customers and can adapt easily and be a bit more flexible,” he said.

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The Hastings Bookshop website is due to be live this week, which Charlie hopes will build on the “amazing” sales he has reported in the physical shop so far.

As well as shipping out online orders both nationally and internationally, Charlie will be taking the approach adopted by other indie sellers across the country by getting on his bike to deliver to his customers. 

It might not be how he originally envisaged his first week as a shop owner but that doesn’t mean the uncertain times don’t bring opportunities for independent booksellers.

The Hastings Bookshop opens its doors just as Bookshop.org launches its UK website.

The online retailer aims to help indies take on the might of Amazon, offering a centralised space for them to sell their books online for the full profit margin at 30 per cent of the cover price with customers receiving a small discount and deliveries handled by the site.

Readers will also be able to browse lists and recommendations from authors, influencers, publishers, journalists and more high-profile figures. The idea was a hit in the US before opening in the UK and has already seen 150 stores sign up at launch.

Bookshop.org founder Andy Hunter said that the plan is to help consumers support the local high street. He said: “Bookshops are essential to a healthy culture, and online sales are vital to safeguarding their future. We can’t afford to lose them. Covid-19 has added further urgency to the need for bookshops to compete for online sales.”

I think people actually want to feel like they’re doing something to support small businesses. I’ve already had dozens of customers asking if we’re on Bookshop.org so the timing of the launch is perfect

Charlie has already signed up for The Hastings Bookshop to feature on Bookshop.org and is full of hope for the future despite the uncertainty that the coronavirus pandemic continues to bring.

There have been efforts to bring together independent bookshop owners in the past, including the Independent Bookshop Alliance that The Big Issue supported back in 2018, in a bid to protect the sense of community and culture they bring to the high street.

With high streets set to empty again, Charlie insists Bookshop.org’s collective movement can bolster the power that indie sellers wield.

“I think it’s going to be a really, really big thing,” he said. “During the coronavirus pandemic, I think lots of people have started to really think about where they show up, what type of things to buy and things aren’t so much about what’s quickest and what’s easiest.

“I think people actually want to feel like they’re doing something to support small businesses. I’ve already had dozens of customers asking if we’re on Bookshop.org so the timing of the launch is obviously perfect really.

“I’m really excited about it and I think I think it’s really going to be a game changer in the book industry.”

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