The favourite photo I have of myself was taken when I was around 10 years old. I’m wearing a questionable combo of pink slacks, white socks and black shoes, and I’m stood outside the front of my grandfather’s bookshop, on Guildford High Street.
I treasure it because the shop is no longer there – it closed in 2003 as bookshops were starting to fold, house-of-cards-like, thanks to the internet. My memories, though, of the Aladdin’s cave inside, where every nook and cranny was piled high with books – some new and shiny; others old and just the right side of musty – remain.
It felt magical to me as a child and, as an adult, I still feel the same way about bookshops. They’re special places, packed full with stories and ideas to be discovered. A kind of Disneyland for grown-ups, only with much less screaming.
Last year, more than ever, I was reminded of how much sanctuary they provide, too. The day after the EU referendum result, I, like many, felt bruised, let down and a little scared. I wanted to be somewhere that felt safe, where the world seemed big, diverse and optimistic again, rather than the small and inward-looking place on the news. That afternoon in June, I took myself off to a bookshop and spent an hour lost among the hardbacks.
I’m not the only one who seeks solace among the shelves when times are tough. When Hillary Clinton made her first public appearance (hikes in the woods aside) after losing the election, at a charity gala event, she admitted that, in the days since her defeat, all she had really wanted to do “was just curl up with a good book". Later that same week, the need must have grown even stronger, as she was spotted browsing the shelves of a bookshop in Rhode Island with her family in tow.
But as recently as five years ago, the bookshop was being proclaimed all but dead. The meteoric rise of Amazon and the advent of the Kindle and ebooks spelled disaster and the figures proved grim. “The numbers of independent bookshops on our high streets have nearly halved in a decade, from 1,535 in 2005 to 894 in 2015,” says Lisa Campbell, news editor of The Bookseller.
Things looked a long way from rosy. Yet, the story of the bookshop still had a few twists in its tale.
“The last comprehensive statistics, from 2015, showed a slowing of the closures – 46 closed in that year compared with 57 in 2014,” says Campbell. “And the wave of closures has not put off some from the dream of owning their own bookshop. Every year, new independents open – with 23 taking off in 2015 – so I do get the sense the tide is starting to turn.”
She points to new openings last year, like Libreria in East London, which drew press attention for it’s decision to ban mobile phones and provide a “digital refuge”, and chef Rick Stein’s new shop in Padstow, Cornwall, opened with veteran Cornish bookseller Ron Johns.
Campbell says: “The independent bookshops open today have weathered the digital storm by diversifying, offering excellent customer service and knowledge about books, creating a sense of retail theatre, luring customers to their stores, holding more events and becoming more embedded into their community. And the ones which do this the best are absolutely thriving.”
Bookshops are special places, packed full with stories and ideas to be discovered. A kind of Disneyland for grown-ups, only with much less screaming
Alan Staton, head of marketing and communications at the Booksellers Association, which supports and promotes bricks-and-mortar bookstores through nationwide events, like Books Are My Bag, points out that the UK still has three times as many bookshops per person as the USA – proof, he says, “that we are still a nation of book lovers".
Whenever I look at that photo of me outside the bookshop, I daydream about resurrecting the family business and running one myself. But opening a bookshop these days feels like an enormous leap of faith – and must take some serious mettle.
It’s a dream that Helen Stanton had for years, too. “I was super shy when I was growing up,” she explains. “I would always seek out bookshops wherever I was. The bookshop was my friend on the high street. I knew I could go in and no one would look me up and down and think I couldn’t afford to buy anything. It was a place where you could go and spend time.
“I’d always dreamt of having my own, but I don’t come from a background of money so, for a long time, it felt completely out of reach.”
Then, five years ago, while she was on extended maternity leave after being made redundant from her job in publishing, her husband – a literary agent – heard of a bookshop, Forum Books, for sale in Corbridge, Northumberland, and they took that leap of faith. With two small children, they made the move down from Edinburgh and Helen started her dream business.
“At the time, it did feel a bit insane, because that was the time when everyone was talking about the end of bookshops," she says. “When we took it on, it was still viable, but sales had gone down. The first year quite stressful, but I think part of that is because I’d never run my own business before. It’s hard work. I’ve never sat behind the counter, reading a book. But, every year, I’ve grown the business and sold more books.”
Last year, her shop won best independent bookshop in the north of England. “I always believe that there are enough book lovers who are going to seek us out and not want that kind of corporate retail experience. I never see books as products – it's completely different to that. We’re readers ourselves, too – we’re not just selling stuff – and that comes across.”
'But a Kindle’s so much easier to take on holiday,' cry the defenders, as if a marginally lighter suitcase can in any way compete with shelves overflowing with beautiful books
She says running a bookshop these days means being “constantly inventive” and that events are now a key part of any successful independent. She recently put on a silent book disco at a local literary festival, where staff chose 12 books they loved and curated playlists to bring them to life, and she has a pop-up shop at Newcastle arts gallery The Biscuit Factory. “They’ve got a little shed, which I’ve got books in. I’ve chosen ones that kind of sell themselves. They’re beautiful, very tactile books. It’s going really well.”
She’s done recent events with New Order bassist Peter Hook and Burial Rites author Hannah Kent. “Carol Ann Duffy and Jackie Kay came to Corbridge, too, and we had 250 people in the church, listening to poetry, which was pretty amazing. Early next year, we’ve got an event with Mark Frost, the co-creator of Twin Peaks.”
Bookshops’ survival relies on people still buying paper books, instead of downloading them on Kindles. So, the good news is that, according to figures from The Publishers Association, this year, for the first time since the ebook was invented, physical book sales increased – while digital sales went down.
Personally, I’ve never got why anyone would choose to read words on a stark screen, instead of turning the pages of a beautiful book – especially when we already spend hours each day staring at monitors and phones. “But a Kindle’s so much easier to take on holiday,” cry the defenders, as if a marginally lighter suitcase can in any way compete with shelves overflowing with beautiful books.
For me, that sense of discovery is why bookshops can never compete with buying something online – where one purchase of Gone Girl will have you pegged as crime fiction reader forever more by an algorithm.
“Most people just like to come and have a look and see what they chance upon,” says Helen. “The real value of what I offer is an inventory. Every book in the shop has been handpicked – it's there for a reason. Bookshops are one of the places where you will have a conversation on the high street. I’ve got to know a lot of my customers really well and I’m lucky that they trust me.”
If these turbulent political times do spell more trouble for bookshops, it will be a tragedy, because it's precisely when the world feels uncertain and scary that we need their welcoming, comforting interiors the most
Half an hour in a bookshop can send your reading off in a direction you never expected – whether it’s via a passionate staff recommendation or the lure of a gorgeously designed cover. In fact, bookshops are vital for new authors who stand little chance of being discovered on the Amazon homepage. “Independent bookshops undoubtedly help readers to discover new authors,” says Lisa Campbell. “They are excellent champions of new and emerging writers, by holding events with debut authors, shouting about book recommendations through social media and recommending their titles to customers.”
Authors can’t do without them – and neither can I. So, what does the future hold for bookshops? Do we still need to be worried? Helen Stanton is confident her shop can weather the storm. “The book trade is still a big industry in the UK,” she says. “There are a lot of books still bought in the UK and, if can just get a tiny little sliver of that, then we can still exist, I can employ lovely staff and we can do amazing events.”
Lisa Campbell is hopeful about the future, too, as “indie bookshops have already proven themselves to have been tougher than many predicted in riding out the digital transition". But she warns that, post-Brexit, bookshops can’t rest too easy. “With the UK economy fragile at the moment, bookshops will have to be vigilant at retaining customers when more may be swayed by often cheaper prices online.”
If these turbulent political times do spell more trouble for bookshops, it will be a tragedy, because it's precisely when the world feels uncertain and scary that we need their welcoming, comforting interiors the most.
In the week after the referendum, Helen says sales in Forum Books went scarily quiet – but there were still some people coming in. “Certain customers were really glad to come in and chat. They just wanted a bit of solidarity and some hugs, I think.” Try getting that from Amazon.