Over recent weeks, news of the renaissance of printed books has been proclaimed in the media as a major story.
And it is true, print-book sales are growing again. The reasons for this resurgence lie in a curious alchemy of events, but to my mind there has been a key provider of oxygen, and that is the renewed high-street book trade. Alongside the now excellent Waterstones, new independents are thriving, and these shops are publishers’ partners in creating a readership for more literary, debut and original writers for adults and children.
To celebrate this community, we’re going to run a regular blog here called ‘My Favourite Indie’ and will encourage our staff, writers and publishing colleagues to contribute. To kick this off, I’ve been visiting a number of independent shops around Britain. It’s been inspiring and fun, and has given me a strong sense of just how vibrant this new bookselling community is.
Here’s a snapshot of a few of the excellent shops I visited:
My first visit was reasonably local, requiring a few trundling train journeys to south-east London. Nestled in a quiet suburban street, this bright, open shop is the opposite of sleepy. Drawing energy from its dynamic owner, Susie Nicklin, who owns a literary agency as well as the shop, Dulwich Books is ambitious about everything it does. It has a hugely active and personal social-media presence, packed with news of their events and mountains of book love that is shared by its customers.
Its events, both in and outside the store, are thoughtfully curated. Even the shop furniture is dynamic and can be wheeled around to accommodate events or simply to counteract sameness. It’s a friendly, passionately run shop at the heart of a London suburb and one that makes plenty of noise about books and writers.
Next I travelled to the Scottish Borders to meet Roz de la Hey and visit the beautiful shop she runs with her husband in an exquisite rural setting. The complex of buildings that make up the shop, café, delicatessen and events space (plus car park,) is the centre of a wide community encompassing several villages.
The scale and sheer sophistication of this shop would rival any metropolitan centre. It’s emblematic of all that is extraordinary about modern bookselling: a retail space imagined afresh with books and reading at its core, but unafraid of surrounding that with a sensibility that belongs in aspirational lifestyle or interior design magazines. I would love to live next door and found it impossible not to buy books.
A short drive south from Main Street landed me in the pretty market town of Corbridge where Helen Stanton runs the Aladdin’s cave that is Forum Books. She arranges the books in such a personal manner that they resemble an abstract painting. As you browse, books collide and possibilities abound. It feels as though you are discovering books you already know, while also being seduced by the new.
She’s also relentless in her pursuit of new partnerships and ways to take books to readers, old and young (she has a particularly brilliant children’s section). Recently, she was telling me, she organised a ‘silent disco’, where browsers wore headphones and listened to soundtracks for reading. This innovative and engaging initiative is typical of Helen, a great entrepreneur who is creating noise (rather than silence) around reading.
As a boy from the West Midlands I was particularly thrilled to find this fantastic bookshop in Shropshire. Established in 2009 by Carrie and Tim Morris, the shop has a bright, fashionable feel and has become a destination store for the town and the large rural community that surrounds it. The book stock is strikingly strong, with a wide and unusual range. The owners even create some of their own gift and local publishing. Many of the shops I visited play a notable community role, but Booka felt especially strong, with a warmth and family-friendly welcome that is embodied by its owners.
All journeys end at home, and I could not leave out my local bookshop in south-west London. Arranged across two small floors and rammed with good books, the Barnes Bookshop is a key hub on the most independent of high streets in Britain. It is at the centre of a haven in the heart of London. Hand selling is all, along with a friendly and ebullient atmosphere. Venetia, who recently took it over after years at one of the great indies, Heywood Hill, is energy and enthusiasm itself. I feel immensely lucky to have such a wonder on my doorstep.
I could go on, of course, as these are just five extraordinary examples of the variety of bookselling that now abounds. There is one thing that all these shops have in common, though, and that is inspiringly dedicated and extremely hardworking people, be they owners or staff. To have such partners and such an incredible range of superb shops in which to display our wares is, for publishers, nothing short of miraculous. So please do go and visit one of these shops or an independent near you.
Stephen Page, Chief Executive