Is there any future for independent bookshops? Earlier this month, six went out of business in just one week. Those that still survive know they can never match the huge discounts offered by Amazon, supermarkets and chains such as Waterstone's. Yet when Stephen Moss toured the country to visit this 'dying breed', he found a group convinced it can fight back
Bailey Hill Bookshop
Fore Street, Castle Cary, Somerset
Lynn Johnston was Ottakared. She used to have a bookshop in Wells in Somerset - small, friendly, popular, the usual stuff. But evidently not popular enough, because when Ottakar's moved in, profits plunged and she was forced to close. Now she's starting all over again down the road in Ottakar-less Castle Cary."
In the end, I really couldn't fight the pricecutting," she explains. "As well as Ottakar's, I was facing Smiths and Tesco. It turned me into a nervous wreck. It's just too small a market. I tried to compete and it cost me a lot of money." The Canadian-born Johnston, who opened in Wells in 1989, laments the end of the net book agreement [which barred discounting] in the mid-1990s. "Before the net book agreement was broken I would sell a hundred Delia Smiths," she says. "As soon as it ended, just forget all that. Michael Palin - I couldn't keep enough in stock. It was easy money."
The Castle Cary shop, which she took over 18 months ago and is sprucing up, sells new and second-hand books, CDs, DVDs and cards. "I have a foot in everything I can have a foot in," she says. "We're doing second-hand and putting them on the internet. You have to have eyes in the back of your head to run a bookshop at the moment."
49 Exmouth Market, Clerkenwell, London EC1
Phil Griffiths is a one-man band. His shop is small, it turns over about £100,000 a year, he more or less is the staff. Our conversation is punctuated by him having to serve customers, chat to passers-by and say hello to the postman. The shop is close to the Guardian's offices - he says the Guardian's proposed move to King's Cross in a couple of years or so could have so severe an effect on his business that he may have to relocate too.
Before he started the shop eight years ago, he worked for an independent in Islington. At that time, in the mid-1990s, there were four independents clustered around Islington Green; then Waterstone's arrived, closely followed by Borders. All the independents have gone. Griffiths found refuge a mile or so away from the two chains.
"It's becoming more of a niche market, but there is still room for independents," he says. "If anything, it's starting to feel as if there is a bit of a backlash. People are bored with seeing the same selection of books on display in all the chain windows. Everywhere seems to have a Borders or Waterstone's or Ottakar's now. It feels uniform, plastic; you could almost be anywhere, on any major high street.
"It's felt harder in the past three years, but now it seems to be levelling out and the potential is there for it to increase again. It may be slightly easier to have an independent bookshop than it was five years ago. Waterstone's aren't really performing at all now. They seem to be very drab all of a sudden. If there's a takeover and they give the branches back some of the autonomy they used to have, maybe that will change. At the moment, Waterstone's feels like a book stockist rather than a bookseller."
Griffiths says he makes a virtue of having a small shop. "When you have limited space, you don't feel obliged to stock everything," he explains. "A lot of the stuff that I wouldn't read, I wouldn't necessarily stock." It is the antithesis of central buying. What you see in a shop like this is what the owner would have on his shelves at home - if he had £50,000 to spare."
Heywood Hill Bookshop
10 Curzon Street, London W1
Heywood Hill Bookshop in Mayfair is the only store I visited with a blue plaque over the doorway. The novelist Nancy Mitford ran it during the war while the founder, Heywood Hill, was in the army, and when you step into the dark, cluttered shop it feels like it's 1952.
The shop is run by John Saumarez Smith, who joined straight from Cambridge in 1965 and never quite left. Unusually, the shop sells new, second-hand and antiquarian books. "Most bookshops tend to specialise now," admits Saumarez Smith, "and it is extremely difficult to keep fingers on the pulses of all three areas. But I believe within these four walls it is a good thing to do all three, because we have to concentrate on quality and the personal touch."
Heywood Hill's touch is more personal than most. At first sight the arrangement of the books is baffling, though Saumarez Smith says you get the hang of it after about the third visit. Among various unanswered questions is why Trollope and Henry James get a section to themselves. Browsers and book addicts will probably adore it; others may balk at the idiosyncratic layout and lack of labelling. "We like to think if you want a book of Shelley's poems, we can lay our hands on it," says Saumarez Smith reassuringly.
The shop is famous for cataloguing and selling the libraries of the great and the good (usually after their deaths). Recent sales include the libraries of Enoch Powell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and James Lees-Milne; the room in which Saumarez Smith explains the shop's complex history to me includes several boxes of books that belonged to Edward Heath, their next project.
Heywood Hill is unique; ditto John Saumarez Smith; the shop is owned by the Duke of Devonshire and a consortium of long-time customers; there are no three-for-two offers. It is entirely out of synch with the modern world - which may ensure its survival or threaten its future.
23 Western Road, Brighton
Paul Sweetman, who co-owns City Books with his wife Inge, may be the exception that proves the rule. He is the independent who does discount. "Competition is horrendous here," he explains. "It's probably one of the toughest places in the country. The first Borders in Europe opened in Brighton and, in response to that, Waterstone's increased their space to five floors. And Sussex Stationers [a chain that discounts ferociously] are based in Brighton and have six branches here, including a couple of their biggest ones." Sweetman's response has been to join the price war.
But with smart bombs. His shop puts 50 or 60 titles on special offer, and tries not to duplicate what is being discounted by the chains. "We don't blindly whack the price of everything," he says. "We wouldn't reduce the price of a highquality book that might be bought as a gift. People don't buy a cut-price book for their best friend's wedding. The Sussex Stationers approach is just to stick a label on everything. That's ludicrous. We can't discount deeply but we can pick the books that customers want."
The policy, anathema to booksellers such as James Daunt and most other independents, seems to be working. City Books celebrates its 21st birthday next year. Sweetman recalls how another very good local independent, Read All About It, which refused to discount, was forced out of business by the proximity of a Sussex Stationers.
City Books' other weapon is author events. "We do an enormous number of events that we hold in a local theatre called the Old Market," says Sweetman. "We've pretty well cornered the events market and really enjoy doing them." The bookshop also sponsors the Brighton festival. "We're not shrinking violets," he says. "We like to take a few gambles. It doesn't have to come off every time. There's a danger that independents can be too cautious and conservative."
Oldfield Park Bookshop
43 Moorland Road, Bath
Harry Wainwright, who started the Oldfield Park Bookshop in 2002, is an old Waterstone's hand. "I joined in the champagne days of 1988," he recalls. "There were 20 shops and Tim [Waterstone] knew everybody by name." Wainwright worked first in Dublin, then in the large Bath Waterstone's, which he managed from 1990-95 before getting a job in head office managing all the stores in the south-west of England.
He quit Waterstone's in October 2001. "It was a crossroads," he says. "I'd reached a point where you think it's down to priorities. Waterstone's had become very centralised and I didn't think it was going to change back, but did I want to work for another organisation? I couldn't leave the book trade - I just loved bookselling - so I decided to strike out on my own."
Why Oldfield Park, a suburb a mile south of the centre of Bath? "City centres are mostly volume-driven now unless you've got something that's a real niche," he explains. "Market towns made me nervous because you have to think, 'How do head offices see the world?' They see it in terms of cities and market towns, whereas Waterstone's would never think of opening somewhere like this. But there's a busy passing trade and a lot of young professional people live here, which is our core market."
Wainwright toyed with discounting a couple of years ago but gave up when he realised that a Nigella Lawson book he had bought at a 50% discount - high for an independent, which usually gets 35-40% - was being offered for less than that in supermarkets. Now it's all about quality of service - "even at Christmas we make sure we can spend 20 minutes with a customer" - and building up a nexus of local buyer-supporters.
"About half of our turnover comes from a very small group of customers," he says, "to whom I am undyingly loyal. They'll be a couple of hundred, many of whom I know by name. They're really buying into what we are trying to do. It's an old-fashioned kind of retailing - people who like to be known. A lot of them become friends and you take an interest in each other's lives.
73 Humberstone Gate, Leicester
Shani Lee started selling books three years ago. Having been involved in personnel management and then community regeneration, she says she was looking for a third career, though the shop is not yet doing so well that she can abandon the others - she has to run training courses to help fund the bookselling.
Frontline is a leftwing bookshop based in the Secular Hall in Leicester, a traditional focal point for radicals and free-thinkers. The shop is tiny - 200sq ft - and carries only 1,600 titles, though, like all the independents, it can whistle up almost any book in print in 24 hours. But Lee is hoping to get a grant, as part of the regeneration of the area, to create a shop five times larger than that.
"We won't be doing three-for-two offers or the bestselling stuff," she says. "We'll be much more LRB-style and linked in with writers groups. I see this space as a hub for writers and for readers, for people who enjoy reading and discussing ideas." Her dream depends on the regeneration of the area into a cultural hotspot. At the moment, it resembles a bus park, but a £48m performing arts venue, due to open in 2008, could trigger a renaissance. "It will be like a village on the east side of the city centre," says Lee hopefully.
You sense, though, that the next couple of years - the bus park period - could be testing. "I think I'll survive because we're planning for the future," she says. "We are building a presence and a profile for the bookshop. We knew we'd have these problems at the beginning. Also, I needed time to learn about bookselling, and I've learned a lot."
1d Calton Avenue, Dulwich Village, London SE21
Hazel Broadfoot and Julian Toland, who co-own the Dulwich Bookshop, make it all look so easy. The shop, which they bought 10 years ago, is popular, profitable and often held up as a model independent. Recently, they bought a second shop in Wandsworth and are now trying to work their magic there. Except, the way they tell it, it's not magic; it's common sense: carry a wide and interesting range of stock; keep it under control; offer excellent service.
It helps that they are steeped in books. "It's all I've ever done, really, for 35 years," says Toland. Both were directors of Waterstone's before leaving almost simultaneously in the 1990s and, soon after, agreeing over lunch to start their own shop. But tyros beware - it really isn't as simple as it appears. "Lots of people come into the shop and say, 'I'm retiring, I'd like to start a bookshop,'" cautions Broadfoot, "and you think, 'Don't! Don't do it,' because if you don't know what you're doing, you can get it so wrong."
But if you do know what you're doing - and lots of the Waterstone's diaspora clearly do - then there is an opportunity. Toland cites the improvement in the supply chain and the speed at which orders can be fulfilled. Broadfoot argues - and this will amaze some independents - that even the end of the net book agreement had a silver lining. "We bought this shop just as the net book agreement was going," she recalls, "and at first we thought, 'Oh my God, this is a disaster.' But it wasn't and we finished up making better margins because publishers will negotiate on an individual basis now. We make the sort of margins that Waterstone's used to make when they had six shops, so if your cost base is right and your location is right, you ought to be able to do really well."
113-119 Charing Cross Road, London WC2
Foyle's is not your average independent. It carries 221,000 titles and turns over £14m a year, for a start. It also has another outlet at the Royal Festival Hall on London's South Bank, and is about to open two more at Hampton Court Palace and the Tower of London. But don't use the C-word anywhere near commercial director Vivienne Wordley, who calls the shop "fiercely independent" and says, "If we don't differentiate ourselves from the chains, we have failed."
"We consciously set out to be different," she says. "We carry more books, do a lot of backlist promotion, and won't sell things at half-price and end up losing money." Foyle's isdoing a threefor- two at the moment - on Loeb's Classics! And Seamus Heaney's District and Circle is book of the month. "We want to put unusual things in front of the customer," says Wordley. "We'll show the Richard and Judy titles, because people will expect them, but they won't dominate the store."
The shop, in the days when it was run by the family matriarch Christina Foyle, was famous for its anarchic organisation. When I ask Wordley whether she worked for it then, she sounds horrified. "Of course not," she says. "What do you think I am, a masochist?" In the past five years, with an investment of £4m, Foyle's has sought to improve both its appearance and its efficiency - you no longer have to queue three times to buy a book. But, still family-owned, it doesn't want to lose all its idiosyncrasy. "We mustn't become bland and anodyne," says Wordley. "Shopping here should be fun. That why we have a piranha tank in the kids' department. We thought that would be better than a fluffy toy."
228 Moss Lane, Bramhall, Cheshire
The centre of Manchester has no independent bookshops - or none I could find. High rents and chain dominance has forced them out. Yet Bramhall, a satellite town (residents prefer to say village) to the south of the city has two: Simply Books, which opened four years ago, and Bramhall Village Bookshop, which has been here for 37. One senses a hint of tension between the two.
Simply Books was set up by Andrew Cant and Sue Steel when they failed to buy the Village Bookshop. The shop is light, airy, modern, welcoming. A strong children's section; a coffee bar; a purpose-designed events space upstairs. Cant, former assistant director of education in Manchester, and Steel, a former school head, have given up big jobs to start this shop, and their energy and commitment are palpable, exhausting even.
But why did they give up two thumping salaries to start so tricky a business? "It was one of those mad moments really," says Steel. "It was Christmas Eve, 2001. You have those usual conversations around Christmas about what would you have done if you could have done anything at all. We were sitting there, glass of wine in hand, and Andrew said to me, 'I would have had a bookshop, I would love to have done that.' I told him the Village Bookshop was up for sale and he put in an offer." The bid failed but the idea had taken root, and four years later here they are, salary-less but enjoying life.
"I'd had enough of working in education," says Cant. "It's a hothouse and not the sort of place where you want to spend your whole life. This is a bit more creative and you've got the autonomy to make decisions." Steel says she was still enjoying teaching, but thought that Cant would need support. "I said, 'If you do this on your own, you'll never get out of the shop and you'll end up as one of those people in cardigans going mad.' So we had another big weekend, the outcome of which was that I came in too. We thought, 'We've really got to make a go of it now because we've given up everything.'" Never start a bookshop on a whim - or as a result of a "What-is-the-meaning-of-life?" discussion on Christmas Eve - is usually sound advice. But if anyone can overturn that logic, Cant and Steel can.
From The Guardian