close
close

Meet the people behind three of the UK’s brilliant independent bookshops | book

book

Rebuilding from a fire, competing with Amazon and launching during the lockdown – how these Indians continue to thrive

Friday, June 21, 2024, 12:30 CEST

Against the odds, independent bookshops seem to be holding on: in 2022, the number of indies in the UK and Ireland reached a 10-year high of 1,072 shops, according to the Booksellers Association (BA). Although this year’s figures are down a little – there are now 1,063 independent bookshops – book sales overall are “defying the trend of nearly a decade”, says a BA spokesman – especially “if you consider the 2016 figure of 867 stores”. As we come to the end of Independent Bookshop Week, an annual celebration which this year saw 100 events and 700 shops take part, we’re shining a light on three of the UK’s independent bookshops.

***

Berwyn Bookstore, North Wales

Few bookstores will have had as dramatic a start as Emma and Adam Littler’s Berwyn Bookstore. Three years ago, the couple worked for the then-owner of the business, when it was a dealership based in a warehouse rather than a bookstore, specializing in used and collectible books.

Then, in November 2021, a fire broke out at the warehouse, destroying most of the stock, about 400,000 volumes, including extremely rare items such as a book that Queen Victoria signed when she gave it to her mistress on duty.

The owner quit the business after that and the Littlers decided to take it over. Keeping the old dealership name and the small amount of stock that had been saved from the fire, they relocated and turned to a new business model.

Adam and Emma Littler in their bookstore. Photo: Berwyn Bookstore

Berwyn Bookstore is now based in a former community center on a residential property near Mold. The couple still deals in used books and collectibles, mainly through the online portal AbeBooks. But the shop now also sells new books and has held packed events with authors such as Lisa Jewell, MW Craven and Victoria Hislop.

“We look different to a conventional store,” admits Emma, ​​31. “And when we first started, it was a bit of a struggle to convince the authors to come to a former community center in Mold. But the support we’ve had from authors and publishers is extraordinary.”

Following the devastating fire, the community rallied and donated books to help replenish the lost stock. But Littlers opened their new premises right in the middle of the Covid pandemic, at a time when movement in Wales was severely restricted due to local lockdowns.

“We had no idea how we would make it work after the fire or if we could make it work, but we never looked back,” says Emma.

She admits that running an independent bookstore is hard work and will never be a “get-rich-quick scheme.”

“Overhead fees are high and margins are tight on new books and of course we have to compete with Amazon and the supermarkets. Sometimes when a new book comes out, we pay the publisher more per copy than Amazon sells it to the public,” adds Emma.

“But people still like to support an independent bookstore if they can, and I think the value we provide in terms of author events and the excitement we have for books is something you can only get at an independent bookstore.”

***

Wave of nostalgia, West Yorkshire

Set on the picturesque cobbled street in Haworth town centre, where the Brontës used to walk daily two centuries ago, Wave of Nostalgia is full of literary surroundings.

Earlier this year it was named the best independent bookshop in the north of England at the British Book Awards, which isn’t bad for a shop that wasn’t meant to be a bookshop at all.

Diane Park originally ran a business creating clothing, which she sells from her workshop in Barnoldswick, on the border between West Yorkshire and Lancashire.

Three years ago it moved to Haworth and under the Nostalgia Wave banner it started selling gift items as well as clothing, plus a few books.

“It was in the middle of lockdown and I was reading a lot and all of a sudden I had this light bulb moment,” says Park. “If I was catching up on my reading, then so were a lot of other people. And the books were becoming more and more interesting in the store. Then it seemed obvious that we should become a bookstore.”

Park carefully curates a lightly themed store, focusing on books about feminism and strong women, the LGBTQ+ community, and conservation and the environment.

Since its inception, Wave of Nostalgia now has a staff of six and hosts events in its basement and upstairs rooms.

“I never thought I would have to take so many people,” says Park. “But the value of an independent bookstore is the knowledge and enthusiasm of the booksellers. A person cannot be on the phone with a customer who wants to place an order and at the same time shove books into the hands of customers in the store saying ‘You have to read this!’

Haworth is a honeypot for tourists, which makes running the business a bit unpredictable. “You never know how things are going to go…one day you can be full of tourists and the next it can be dead,” says Park. “But we seem to be a destination store for a lot of people. They will come to Haworth just to visit us and buy a book, or to attend one of our events, which we can have two or three in a week sometimes.|

Winning the accolade of best independent bookshop in the north of England was a highlight of this year, of course, but Park aims to go even further in next year’s awards. “We will do our best to win the title of the best independent in the country,” she says.

***

Falmouth Bookshop, Cornwall

Falmouth Bookstore. Photo: Falmouth Bookstore

There has been a bookshop in the center of the Cornish port town of Falmouth for as long as anyone can remember, but for the past three decades Falmouth Bookseller has been part of the growing Cornish bookshop chain started by Ron Johns. As well as the Falmouth shop, Johns owns St Ives Bookstore, is a partner in Padstow Bookseller and owns the small independent press Mabecron Books, which publishes mainly Cornish picture books.

Housed in a 200-year-old Georgian building, Falmouth Bookseller has an impressive shop window and a light and airy interior. It’s a “brilliant” place to sell books, “for so many reasons,” says manager Eloise Rowe. “We absolutely have the boost of the Cornish tourist trade during the school holidays,” she says, as well as a year-round customer base of locals and university students.

One of the biggest obstacles is getting publishers behind independent bookstores, says Rowe. “We’ve been running talks and events throughout the year, but one of the newer issues we’re dealing with is the bigger tour event organizers doing everything in-house,” she says. “This means that major authors, or perhaps their publicists, are becoming less likely to hold events directly with an indie bookstore. A few years ago we did an event with Michael Palin in our beautiful church in town, it sold out and we sold a lot of books that night – it was a coup for us and the town, but opportunities like this become harder and harder. find.”

That said, Rowe thinks the sector is in pretty good shape. While there are some “really big hurdles,” Indies is “a really great place, and our customers really value us,” she says.