The QT

Friday 14 June 2024

New chapter for indy bookshops

The business of books – so much more than a shop. From social cohesion to sexuality and sanctuary, Sara Jane March finds out why independent booksellers are both seductive and successful
  • Booksellers from the Tweed to the Tees tell their passionate stories of overcoming barriers to success on the High Street
According to the Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookshops across the UK and Ireland reached its highest point in 10 years as of January 2023. Credit: The Queerish Bookshop in Darlington

Independent bookshops so often form the backdrop of romantic films, such as Notting Hill, and their popularity on the high street is growing.

Despite kindles and the like, the Booksellers Association reports the number of independent bookshops across the UK has reached its highest point for 10 years.

The North East is blessed with passionate independent bookshop owners who, despite the cost-of-living crisis piling on the pressure, are surviving and in many cases thriving both as retail outlets and places to meet.

Miles Nelson runs Bookwyrm in Durham alongside his husband, Chris Larmouth. He said: “I think starting any business is hard, not just bookshops, but there are some unique challenges that come with opening a bookshop. 

“The barrier of cost, first of all. When BookWyrm first opened, we did so on a shoestring budget and it showed. We had to build up to where we are now, putting every penny back into the shop. Chris was working part-time and neither of us took a wage but after a few months we were able to buy more shelves to fill!”

Megan Hemsley, 24, was inspired by Bookwyrm and decided to open The Queerish Bookshop in Darlington. She said: “The action I have taken was born out of experiencing the LGBTQ+ book shops that existed before me, such as Bookwyrm in Durham.”

The young business owner believes business start-up challenges can be overcome with research and determination but she is concerned about costs.

“A primary challenge that prevents any kind of shop from opening is overhead costs,” said Megan. 

“Currently, the cost-of-living crisis is a major issue for many businesses, especially during the winter with our heating bills. There was an LGBTQ+ bookshop in the works for Newcastle but this has been delayed as a result of the crisis.”

Miles Nelson (L) and Chris Larmouth (R) run an award-winning bookshop in Durham. Credit: Bookwyrm, Durham

Richard Drake and Melanie Greenwood have been running a bookshop in Stockton-on-Tees since 2015. Although their business is award-winning, he admitted: “It isn’t easy. The high street is a changed place. Business rates are not fit for purpose. They make running and expanding a business prohibitive.

“Chain stores take away footfall from the out-of-town centres meaning everyone must work harder. The biggest challenge is coping with competition. Supermarkets and online sites all have buying power that we can’t compete with.

“You can get carried away with the idea of convincing people who use online or supermarkets for their books to use independents instead but it is important to focus on the things you can change and find the people who DO want to shop with you.  

“The best way to do this is to try and help grow the whole pie rather than your own slice.”

Richard believes the pandemic has, in fact, fuelled the success of independent bookshops.

“The pandemic allowed people to step back and think about community and how important it is,” he explained. “People began to realise that the multi-nationals don’t care, while the independent sector has community at the heart of its ethos. 

“Also, indie shops have a passion for what they are selling and an expertise that isn’t always visible in the chain or the supermarket. Book lovers care about books and about people who are invested in books.”

When it comes to running a bookshop, Richard added: “The pluses far outweigh the negatives.”

Megan Hemsley opened The Queerish Bookshop in 2023 not only as a business venture but for personal and social reasons too. Credit: The Queerish Bookshop in Darlington

Despite the record numbers, a survey by the Booksellers’ Association found independent retailers still remain concerned about consumer confidence, increasing wholesale prices and staff-related costs.

Meryl Halls, managing director of The Booksellers Association, said: “The current environment of high street business costs, the increased cost of living and the precarious state of the UK economy, mean bookshops still face significant challenges.”

Claire Morton and Lisa Hobman of Berwick-upon-Tweed’s Slightly Foxed explained their bookshop was already established when they took over in 2021. The founder, Dr Simon Heald, died suddenly and, as regular customers, the two friends wanted the business to ‘remain as Simon had intended’. 

However, they face further challenges of a different sort as they sell predominantly second-hand books.

Lisa, 51, said: “I suppose the main challenge is that we don’t always have the latest charting titles right away. That said, we have a wonderfully loyal customer base who donate to us regularly meaning that we are constantly stocked with wonderful books. 

“The other issue for us would be that our town being a tourist destination does have quieter times. I think our advice would be to research the location you intend to set up and ensure that you will get the footfall throughout the year.”

Yet Meryl Halls pointed out that, in spite of stiff online competition and deep supermarket discounts, independent booksellers are bucking the trend and on the rise.

Claire Morton ( left) and Lisa Hobman took over their local second-hand bookshop after its previous owner died suddenly and wanted it to remain as he had intended. Credit: Slightly Foxed, Berwick-upon-Tweed

According to the Booksellers Association, the number of independent bookshops across the UK and Ireland had reached its highest point in 10 years as of January 2023 with 1,072 members. There were only 867 in 2016. 

 “Bookshops bring social and cultural capital to every area they are part of and punch way above their weight in terms of impact and engagement,” said Meryl.

Tom Tivan is managing editor of The Bookseller and suggests ‘we may just be in the golden age of independent book-selling’.

So just exactly what is the secret of the independent booksellers’ success?

“Perhaps it is because they combine the old with the new,” said Tom. “It’s that unique insider knowledge and deep love of books which they can impart to readers. Some are long-time family-run shops and others community not-for-profit. The common thread is constant innovation and unwavering support for local communities.”

The allure of each bookshop is down to its design and layout, providing solace, sanctuary and social cohesion as well as a personal touch. Credit: Slightly Foxed, Berwick-upon-Tweed

Slightly Foxed’s Claire said: “We can say without bias the shop really is beautiful. Simon was meticulous in his design choices and the shop really does have a cosy, old world-feel to it, which seems to appeal.

“People love the atmosphere and of course the friendly service. We enjoy interacting with our customers, many of whom have become friends. 

“So perhaps it’s a more personal experience. We get to know our regular customers and are able to select and reserve titles we feel they would like.” 

One of the key considerations for Bookwyrm’s Miles and Chris, when opening their bookshop, was the issue of their own sexuality and the need to feel comfortable within a trusted space.

“A big drive for opening our shop was that we always felt the need for a permanent and sober queer safe space in Durham,” explained Chris. “We had lived in the city for seven years and never had a space to go to meet others like us. Durham Pride is a wonderful event but it happens for one weekend only then vanishes for the rest of the year.”

Bookwyrm is Durham is ‘so much more than a shop’ say its owners. Credit: Bookwyrm

Although small, Bookwyrm offers something different for Durham — as does The Queerish Bookshop in Darlington. For the owners, it’s about so much more than selling books.

Miles said: “It is an absolute pleasure to be able to stock so many wonderful titles, and with such an array of identities too. There’s nothing quite like a feeling of ‘being seen’ in a book that you’re reading and relating to the characters or author on a deep and personal level. For me, that is a feeling that no other media can replicate.”

When Megan set up her business in Darlington she also found there was no other LGBT+ space to visit. Since 2022, Megan has also set up an LGBTQ+ film club called The Rainbow Screen and helped restart the 18+ transgender social group, Phoenix Trans. 

Megan Hemsley is also setting up a creative writing club and said she is ‘excited’ for the future.
Credit: The Queerish Bookshop in Darlington

“Primarily, queer spaces exist in cities and I hated the idea that, in order to live the life I wanted within a queer community, I may have to move,” explained Megan. “I love Darlington. I love the North East and so I thought to myself why not open a space and see what happens?

“Queer spaces shouldn’t only be limited to cities because queer people exist everywhere, and in order to build a community we have to create spaces that allow for it to be cultivated. I am also setting up a creative writing club and a Discord group for folks to plan queer social events. 

“As a result, I have met so many wonderful people from the community in our store, all of whom express excitement at the fact that a queer space now exists in Darlington. I’m excited to see how our community grows in the future.”

Do you have a favourite bookshop? Let The QT Social know what such a space means to you and why.

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