The independent bookshops that launched in a pandemic

It takes a brave person to start a business in the middle of a national crisis – but these indie booksellers did just that, and they're thriving.

Paper-Works Books and Prints. Illustration by Jessie Bayliss

As regular readers will know, The Big Issue’s support for independent book shops and publishers is longstanding and has intensified in the last few years to the point of us becoming zealots/pub bores on the subject.

This is not just because we value the attitude taken by indie stores in taking commercials risks, introducing debut writers and bringing local communities together. It’s also because we have found so much to cherish in these environments and so many books of outstanding quality to be shared.

The alleged ‘death of the high street’, the growth of online book-buying in the midst of a global pandemic… not ideal conditions to open an independent bookshop. But that didn’t stop these intrepid booksellers taking big, brave steps into the unknown, refusing to be cowed by lockdowns, ailments or Amazons.

Paper-Works Books and Prints, Lowestoft

Opened: December 5, 2020

Hugh & Lisa Davies 

Our bookshop is a stone’s throw from Ness Point, the most easterly point in the UK. As with many places, the town centre has suffered over the past decade or so. However, the historic high street, with its attractive old buildings and small-footprint shops, has been doing well. New businesses including a zero-waste store, an art gallery, coffee bar and shops specialising in plants, woodturning and jazz have all emerged over the last few years. There is a positive and supportive community among the business owners, and collectively we have engaged in awareness-raising activities such as the “Fiver Fest” co-ordinated nationally by the great folks at Totally Locally. Lisa has spent many years working in primary education and Hugh has worked in both architecture and information technology. We met five years ago at a time when we were both looking to leave London. The move to Lowestoft was the opportunity to start working on realising long-held ambitions, the first of which was to set up a printmaking studio where we could provide courses and do our own work. 

Lockdown meant we had to close the printmaking studio so we had been getting work opportunities wherever we could, Lisa as a supply teacher and Hugh picking and packing vegetables on a local farm. In September 2020 a young couple opened a fabulous vegan tea and coffee house on our local high street. It was just the breath of fresh air needed and we were full of admiration. We wondered out loud what other shops we would like to see open in the neighbourhood and realised that we both had a latent ambition to run a secondhand bookshop. Next door to the new coffee shop was an empty unit and the agent’s offices were 100 yards away. Within an hour we had made our decision! 

With no business plan, no books and an empty shop unit we expected everybody to think we were crazy. However, impetuously throwing ourselves into new projects with lots of enthusiasm is familiar territory for friends and family, so we were offered nothing but support. A friend of a friend trapped in the UK by Covid regulations ended up helping us to decorate and fit out the shop within a matter of weeks, and we found ourselves the grateful recipients of boxes and boxes of excess books being trimmed from space-starved lockdown homes. Our opening day was the first Saturday after the November lockdown. We were nervous about whether anybody would turn up, but delighted when we remained at our Covid-safe capacity all day long. We were rewarded with what remains our best day’s takings. Over a year on and we continue to grow. We welcome regulars who live nearby and tourists and bibliophiles from across the county. There is rarely a day when we don’t greet a new face. Selling books online with and through our own click and collect service has kept us going during the lean lockdowns. We would like to think we can provide the best and most bountiful book browsing on a budget in the town! 

Our book recommendations

Our top fiction pick is Maggie O’Farrell’s Hamnet, and for crime aficionados we find Elly Griffiths’s Ruth Galloway series, based in Norfolk, is always well received. The Salt Path by Raynor Winn has been our top-read autobiography and Merlin Sheldrake’s Entangled Life always leaves our non-fiction shelves quickly when we have a copy in. The joy of a secondhand bookshop is that the stock is always changing and you never know what unexpected gem is lurking on the shelves.

Blue Sheep Books, Wednesbury

Opened: October 9, 2021

Sorina Marinescu

We opened on October 9, 2021, which was also National Bookshop Day. We printed flyers, shared it all over social media and hoped for the best. We really didn’t know what to expect, but it was a very busy day and we had lots of customers who were delighted to see a bookshop back on their high street. Business now has been steady but slow, as everyone is recovering after Christmas. We’ve made it through January, hopefully we will see sales going back up from this point onwards. 

I am originally from Romania and I moved to the UK in 2013 to study. Since I graduated I’ve been working as a student support coordinator for international students who are sponsored to study in the UK, alongside running the bookshop. In September 2021 we had been operating online for a while and had been to a few market days with a stall. Then we saw the empty shop unit while walking back from the supermarket one day and decided to contact the landlord to arrange a viewing. We fell in love with the space so we jumped! And we haven’t looked back.

In opening our bookshop we wanted to create a community-friendly space. Part of this is encouraging children to become readers – and what better way to do that than create our own character who can represent our shop? After much thought and many rejected ideas we eventually settled on Blue Sheep Books because a local artist, who is a friend of ours, was doodling and he drew a sheep reading. We loved it and went with Blue because it alliterates well. Our Blue Sheep character has developed through interaction with our young readers. A competition last half term saw a little girl win a gift card and the right to come up with its name. So now we have Supernova the Blue Sheep, whose mission is to grow their BookFlock of readers.

Our book recommendations

Gear Breakers by Zoe Hana Mikuta for anyone into Young Adult adventure; Save Me From Dangerous Men by SA Lelchuk for anyone into thrillers; A Three Dog Problem by SJ Bennett for our crime mystery fans.  

Gallovidia Books, Kirkcudbright

Opened: November 13, 2021

Elizabeth Parsons

Taking a walk down the high street in Kirkcudbright is like taking a step back in time. We have very few chain stores and a very healthy selection of independent retailers – butchers, bakers… and plenty of artisan candlemakers. The only thing Kirkcudbright didn’t have was a bookstore.  

Rapidly approaching 50 in a global pandemic was the catalyst for LOTS of evaluation of my life! I ran a youth arts organisation based in Wigan. Like so many people, lockdown gave me an opportunity to think about how I work. Much of my previous job could be done remotely, so my family and I made the move to southwest Scotland. When the opportunity to open Gallovidia Books presented itself I took the leap to working full time as a bookseller. The quiet living stopped but it’s a dream come true for me; talking about books and living by the sea is bliss. I’m a very lucky woman. 

We opened on November 13 and it was amazing. Our local cake maker designed some cupcakes, our florist arranged local flowers and we had well-wishers popping in throughout the day. It’s a problem for rural communities that we feel almost forced to order the things we need online. People were thrilled to have the option to buy and order their books locally rather than sending their hard-earned money to Amazon. We make sure we stock the very best new releases, classic poetry, classic writing and lots of social policy and history. And lots of brutal, tartan noir. They’re an intellectually curious but bloodthirsty crowd round here! 

Our book recommendations 

For crime lovers The Twyford Code by Janice Hallett and The Christie Affair by Nina de Gramont and, for a spine-chilling contemporary gothic, Hare House by Sally Hinchcliffe is marvellous. 

Gloucester Road Books, Bristol

Opened: April 15, 2021 

Tom Robinson

There was a decisive moment, but it actually came about a couple of years before the pandemic struck. I’ve been a bookseller for almost 15 years now, working in various bookshops in London and Bristol. I had come to the conclusion that I had spent as long as I could stand working for other people, and I needed to make a change. I started tentatively researching things at first, and then when I realised it might actually be possible I got really serious about it. 

I was on the brink of quitting my job and signing a shop lease just as the pandemic first struck, so I had to hold back and bide my time. There were some pretty anxious moments in trying to decide whether I should still go ahead, or whether to cut my losses and steer clear of what seemed at the time like a pretty enormous risk. I had some really key conversations with old friends, with family, as well as people in the industry, and all were thoroughly encouraging. I wouldn’t have had the nerve to go ahead without them. 

I opened just a few days after retail trading was permitted again. In the months leading up to the opening I was in the shop every day, refurbishing and making shelves, and lots of people (who are now regular customers) stuck their heads round the door to see how things were coming along. By the time the 15th came around it felt like there was a lot of excitement in the community, and there was a queue outside for much of that first day. It was amazing, and quite overwhelming. I sold lots of amazing books, had lots of chats with incredibly enthusiastic locals, and my friend Nick came down and hand-printed bookmarks for people. It went as well as I could possibly have hoped. 

People have been immensely supportive here, making me feel welcome from the very beginning. It’s really exciting to pick books that I think they will respond to, because this is a very bookish area and they buy lots of really interesting stuff. 

I think any independent bookshop ends up being a reflection of the people who work there and the people who shop there, which is what is always so exciting about indies – and why no two are ever alike. Part of what we do here involves breaking down some of the usual subject distinctions to encourage people to browse more broadly in non-fiction (for instance, we have a ‘Time & Place’ section that encompasses history, travel literature, reportage and geography). We also have a really strong representation of books by exciting small presses. All the stock decisions are made by myself, and my colleague Leah, so we can choose all the weird and wonderful books we wish! 

Our book recommendations 

This is ever changing. Earlier today I recommended two explosive little books of historical fiction to a customer:  Rizzio by Denise Mina, and The War of the Poor by Eric Vuillard, but the next customer might well get completely
different suggestions. @gloucester_rd_books

Storyville Books, Pontypridd

Opened June 19, 2021

Jeffrey Baxter, local councillor

Pontypridd town centre is changing rapidly, recovering from the impacts of significant flooding, the pandemic and closure of chain shops such as River Island and Marks & Spencer. The high street has shown its resilience but also that the future is indies like ourselves, with at least six new businesses opening in the last six months alone. 

Being a councillor definitely adds to an insight on the future direction of the town, seeing the plans for future developments and investment, especially around the theme of regeneration through culture. For example, a combined total of around £7.5 million is being invested in not one but two art centres right in the centre of the town. 

We’re involved in projects in partnership with Pontypridd Town Council such as The Mab Trail, which will be 11 plinths and stones celebrating the characters from the Mabinogi (from Welsh mythology) placed around the town. Or the plans to bring a German Christmas Market and to make Pontypridd a town of large events including the Pontypridd Children’s Book Festival. We’re heavily involved as individuals and as a bookshop. 

All bookshops are special places but where we are is what makes the difference – and our engagement and impact in the community. For example, we worked with a local primary school to do our Christmas window. All the children were involved in picking the theme of The Nutcracker, making all the items for the display, with four of the children helping in the installation and talking to the local radio station. We also won the Best Christmas Window in Pontypridd Competition in our very first year as a result.

Our book recommendations
This varies hugely but our standing recommendation has been the various titles in the Library of Wales Series, which are 50 of the best Welsh literature books in English. Titles such as Border Country by Raymond Williams, The Dark Philosophers by Gwyn Thomas and In and Out of the Goldfish Bowlby Rachel Trezise have definitely found an audience through our recommendations. @storyvillebook

Illustrations by Jessie Bayliss

Helping the booksellers of tomorrow

New Futures is a programme to support entrepreneurs from underrepresented communities across the UK to open a new independent bookshop. It’s an initiative from ethically conscious book-buying platform and The Booksellers Association. Apprentice-style, applicants from a variety of backgrounds including marginalised ethnicities, LGBTQIA+, working class and disabled, receive training so they can open their own shops.

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach your local vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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