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‘People are so happy we exist’: indie bookshops grow despite retail slump | Books


James Ashmore admits that he and his wife Louise “had a good five minutes of just smelling all the books” when the stock arrived for their new independent bookshop, Read., in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire.

“It’s like when you get a book for Christmas, but we got 35 boxes which we cracked open. It was brilliant,” he says. “It was so tempting to just sit down and read them, but putting them on shelves was one of the best things. Books are so gorgeous to look at.”

Read. is one of more than two dozen new independent bookshops that opened in the UK and Ireland last year, bringing membership of the Booksellers Association to 890 shops – up from 883 in 2018 and 868 in 2017, when indie bookshops increased by just one. Just seven extra shops may seem like a small victory, but this year-on-year increase comes after more than 20 years of decline and marks the third consecutive year of growth. In comparison, 2019 was the worst year on record for retail in the UK, with thousands of jobs disappearing as high-profile brands closed their doors.

High street closures in 2019

Thousands of high street jobs have been lost this year as a result of high profile retail administrations and thousands more are at risk as Mothercare, Debenhams and Forever 21 prepare for closures. Here are some of the key industry names that have been affected.

Mothercare: Has 79 stores and 2,500 UK retail staff as its British arm prepares to go into administration.

Regis/Supercuts: Had 220 salons and 1,200 staff when it went into administration in October.

Bonmarché: Had 318 stores and 2,887 employees when it went into administration in October. It is still trading as it seeks a buyer.

Watt Brothers: The Scottish department chain had 11 stores and 306 employees when it went into administration in October. All the stores closed and the majority of jobs have gone.

Links of London: With 35 stores and 350 staff, the jewellery chain went into administration on 8 October but its sites are still trading.

Forever 21: Had three stores and about 290 employees in the UK when it went into administration in September. Stores are staying open in order to clear stock.

Albemarle & Bond: Suddenly shut all its 116 stores in September with the loss of about 400 jobs, even though it did not call in administrators. It sold its pledge books to rival H&T in September.

Karen Millen and Coast: Had 32 stores and 177 concessions, employing 1,100 people, when it went into administration in August. All sites were closed and the vast majority of staff made redundant after the brands were bought out by online specialist Boohoo.com.

Jack Wills: Had about 100 stores and 1,700 staff in the UK when went into administration in August. Bought by Sports Direct and 98 stores are still trading in the UK and Ireland.

Spudulike: Closed all 37 stores with the loss of about 300 jobs when it went into administration in August.

Bathstore: Had 132 stores and 529 staff when it went into administration in June. Homebase bought 44 stores saving 154 jobs and the brand now trades from 28 stores.

Select: Had 180 stores and 2,000 employees when the fashion retailer went into administration in May. In June administrators at advisory firm Quantuma carried out a CVA closing 11 stores with the loss of about 200 jobs.

Debenhams: Had 166 department stores and more than 25,000 employees when went into administration in April. No store closed immediately and the chain is now owned by its lenders but two will close before Christmas and another 20 in January when the group completes a rescue restructure expected to result in the loss of 1,200 jobs.

Pretty Green: Had 12 stores and about 170 employees when Liam Gallagher’s fashion outlet went into administration in March. All but one store and 33 concessions closed with 100 jobs lost but 67 saved as the brand was bought by JD Sports in April.

Office Outlet: All 94 stores have closed with the loss of 1,170 jobs after the stationery retailer went into administration in March.

LK Bennett: Had 41 stores and 500 employees when it went into administration in March. The brand was bought by its Chinese franchise partner, Rebecca Feng, saving 21 stores, all the group’s concessions and 325 jobs. But more than 100 jobs lost with the closure of 15 stores.

Patisserie Valerie: Had 200 cafes employing nearly 3,000 people when an accounting scandal prompted the chain to call in administrators in January. About 70 of the group’s 200 stores closed immediately with the loss of 900 jobs. About 2,000 jobs were saved when about 100 Patisserie Valerie cafes were rescued by Causeway Capital, more than 20 of which have since closed. 21 Philpotts sandwich shops were bought by AF Blakemore & Son. and four Baker & Spice cafes a were bought by the Department of Coffee & Social Affairs. Sarah Butler

The Ashmores were both teachers when they decided it was about time Holmfirth had a bookshop of its own. “We wanted one, we thought why isn’t there one, so we opened one,” says Ashmore.





James and Louise outside Read. bookshop in Holmfirth.



‘Moving in the right direction’ … James and Louise Ashmore outside Read. in Holmfirth

After launching the shop last February, business is “definitely moving in the right direction”, with a “really good Christmas” under their belts and a full calendar of events, from author appearances to book and writing groups. The eldest of their three children, who is six, likes to help out in the shop (“she’s paid in books”), and the Ashmores feel they have been embraced by the local community.

“We’ve got such a fantastic customer base, knowledgeable and loyal. So many people come in and say, ‘How are you doing? We want you to stay.’ And people really understand that that means not just coming in and giving you a 20-minute monologue about how great bookshops are and then leaving. They understand you need to spend money,” says Ashmore, who is loving the change from teaching. “It’s quite surprising the difference it makes to how you feel about life. Going to work is a much more positive experience.”

At another new store, Round Table Books, which opened in June in Brixton, south London, business was so good over the Christmas period that bookseller Layla Abby closed up each day “jumping for joy”. Round Table only sells books with black, Asian or minority ethnic (BAME) protagonists, and was set up by diverse publisher Knights Of after research found that of more than 9,000 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, just 1% had a BAME main character.

“It was our first Christmas, and we didn’t know what to expect,” says Abby. “But so many customers came in and the reactions ranged from joy to tears to excitement, because people are just so happy we exist, and they can get the books they need.”

Their bestselling title, picture book Look Up by Nathan Bryon and Dapo Adeola, sold 200 copies over the festive period. “We sold out the day before Christmas Eve, and we had people coming in even then asking for copies. It was heartbreaking to have to say no,” says Abby. “We’ve been doing really well. It shows there is demand for the books that we sell. It’s so important we’re giving shelf space to those books that don’t get the space in a chain bookshop or Amazon.”





Our Bookshop in Tring



Our Bookshop in Tring

Ben Moorhouse, who opened Our Bookshop in Tring, Hertfordshire in September, is also celebrating, describing business as “like making hot cakes”. Moorhouse, who runs a comedy preview festival in Tring, decided to open the bookshop after he started to plan a book festival for the town.

“One of the bookshops in town was closing and I couldn’t think of a reason why not to do it. So I did it,” says Moorhouse. “Business so far has been extraordinary. Now we’re entering the twilight zone of January, February and March, which I’m new to. For me, it’s going to live and die on the events – success and failure will be all about exciting the local literary community into coming out and buying books. At the moment it’s working really well.”

At the Booksellers Association, managing director Meryl Halls welcomed the third year of growth in indie numbers, although she pointed out that it comes against a tough backdrop of online competition, rent and business-rate rises, and uncertainty around Brexit. And even with the increase, there are still less than half the number of independent booksellers in the UK and Ireland today than in 1995, when there were 1,894 stores.

“It is very heartening,” said Halls. “This is testament to the creativity, passion and hard work of our booksellers, who continue to excel in challenging circumstances, particularly those wider high-street challenges which so often see bookshops outperforming their high-street peers.”

But Halls promised to continue lobbying the government to protect the future of bookshops, and all retail. “No high street can survive solely on bookshops. All retailers need to be supported and championed in order for the retail landscape to thrive,” she said.



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