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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.
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.
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.”
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.