Hope for the high street as independent book shops continue to flourish

A shop open sign

It’s great to start the year with a positive story and this week we learned that the number of independent bookshops in the UK and Ireland has been steadily increasing for the second year in a row.

Prior to 2017, bookshops had been declining in number every year since 1995, with more than a thousand independent bookshops disappearing within that time frame.

According to Meryl Halls, Managing Director of the Bookseller’s Association – who released the figures, this news is very promising:

It is extremely encouraging to see independent bookshops succeeding in 2018, demonstrating the creativity and entrepreneurship of booksellers in the face of difficult challenges”

A book shop full of books piled high

According to a recent Guardian article, many of these independent stores are being opened by people who are new to retail, who have always dreamed of opening a shop. They offer customers an experience and a community hub that you simply can’t get online and they are being very well received in their respective communities.

Daniel Ross and his wife Emily opened one such store, Storysmith, in Bristol in October. They felt that independent bookshops should serve a function in the community and are capable of sparking a lifelong passion for reading:

“Just a few weeks ago, we were approached by a local primary school who’d won a grant to restock the books in their classrooms, so we made a big deal of it – we got the kids into the shop, made them all hot chocolate, let them pick the books they wanted and then we delivered them the following week. It was chaos, but everyone loved it. Some of them had never been in a bookshop before, and now we know they’ve started their reading journey in a really positive way.”

Whilst it is of course encouraging to see these new stores springing up and flying in the face of the uncertainty on our high streets, Meryl Halls is clear that book stores are not out of the woods yet, as they continue to navigate what she describes as an ‘extremely challenging landscape’ across the UK and Ireland:

“Bookshops (especially our larger members) continue to experience unequal business rates, and struggle alongside wider retail with unfair competition from online retailers, as well as post-Brexit uncertainty.”

According to Hall, physical bookshops – particularly larger premises within chains such as Waterstones – are being unnecessarily burdened by the inequality in business rates. Last year the Bookseller’s Association complained to the Treasury that Waterstones in Bedford pays sixteen times more in business rates per square foot than the nearby Amazon distribution centre. How can they compete against this kind of inequality? High street book stores also face unfair competition from online retailers and supermarket discounter, along with the ongoing uncertainty caused by Brexit. She suggests that the government must take decisive action to support bricks and mortar book stores now, in order to “protect the future of bookshops and their high streets, considering the concerns of retailers and booksellers so they can both flourish.”

Photo credits:  Mike Petrucci and Eli Francis on Unsplash