Bookshops face battle for survival
- 4 October 2011
- From the section Entertainment & Arts
More than 800 bookshops have shut in the past five years, including almost 400 independent outlets, according to new figures from the Booksellers Association of UK and Ireland.
Here, the stories of three bookshops highlight the challenges they face - and point towards some possible solutions.
Pritchard's Bookshop, Formby, Merseyside
There has been a bookshop in Formby for five decades, being run for the last 29 years by Steve Pritchard.
That branch closed last month, but Pritchard will continue to run his branch in nearby Crosby.
"I've been in the business for 36 years and it's changed out of all recognition," Mr Pritchard says.
"As soon as the net book agreement [which set book prices for all retailers] went in the mid-90s, that led to a huge amount of competition from the likes of Tesco and Asda, who came in selling the top books for very low prices.
"Obviously we couldn't compete on price because they were selling them cheaper than we were buying them for. With the level of customer service that we can offer, we've managed to hang on for the last 10 or 15 years.
"But now with the internet and e-books, and the slowdown of the high street in general, it's come to the point where we can no longer cover our overheads," he continues, referring to the Formby branch.
"I think e-books have probably been the final straw. We've been salami sliced over the last few years with various things taking a bit off it, and the government cutbacks haven't helped.
"We used to do regular local books to the libraries. That's slowed off, and schools aren't ordering quite as much through us, they're ordering direct.
"All these little things - a few pounds here, a few pounds there, and it's just reached the tipping point where we can't support a bricks and mortar shop any more.
"I did read in the paper that at the current rate of closure, the last independent book shop will close in 2015. I think there will always be a place for independent bookshops.
"E-books will take a percentage but there will always be somebody who wants a proper book, and there will be a few of us left.
"The cultural heart of a lot of our small towns and cities is the independent bookshop. It really is heartbreaking."
Hale Bookshop, Hale, Cheshire
Sue Barnard has worked in the bookshop on the high street in Hale for 21 years. In recent months, the shop has had a notice on its window reading: "Use us or lose us!"
"It was to highlight the fact that if we don't get the people in through the doors, spending their money with us rather than anywhere else, we might not be here for much longer," Mrs Barnard says.
"Our biggest problem is overheads. Our rates are really crippling.
"Amazon probably provides the biggest competition. As well as their prices, they also have the convenience of being able to do it without leaving home.
"As far as buying stock is concerned, we don't have the buying power that the likes of Waterstone's have, because they buy in massive quantity and can negotiate better dealer discounts.
"The big supermarkets stock books, but they tend to go only for bestsellers. I remember the last-but-one owner of the bookshop got really annoyed when Safeway, as it was then, started selling books. She said: 'How would they like it if I started selling sausages?'
"Competing with Waterstone's and Amazon and the like is a struggle. We're lucky in that we have some very loyal customers who will support us because they can, even if they could buy the same items more cheaply elsewhere. But it's not easy.
"We're prepared to go the extra mile and get stuff that the big boys can't trouble themselves with, and that brings people in to us. That helps. But whether it helps enough is another matter.
"If we went, Hale would lose something which has been in the village for many years, where people love to come in and browse.
"It's a nice friendly atmosphere, people see it almost as a social centre. The last thing Hale needs is another estate agent, bank or restaurant."
Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights, Bath
Mr B's, which opened in 2006, has twice been named the UK's Independent Bookshop of the Year, offering homely and occasionally eccentric surroundings in which to browse.
Its innovations include book-themed events featuring author talks, themed food and music from the shop's house band. It also has a "bibliotherapy room" containing comfy armchairs and a fireplace, in which book-lovers can seek out one-on-one recommendations from their bibliotherapist.
"It's creating an atmosphere that celebrates books and puts the customer and the book at the centre of it," says Nic Bottomley, AKA Mr B.
"When people walk in, I want them to feel that we love books and want to talk to them about books, and that we're not just here to sell them books necessarily on that day.
"We're here to recommend, and we want to share the enjoyment of books. I want to give them a space where we can do that and I want to add in lots of extras that will help them do that.
"You've got to have fantastic customer service - that's a given now. You've got to have a great range of books. Those things will make you survive.
"To thrive, I think you've got to have added extras - unusual gift ideas in our case, or things like adding a band to events and making them more themed and comprehensive.
"I think people become enfranchised into your bookshop if you're doing it right. You've created somewhere that they really want to spend time, somewhere where they can enjoy books and talk to people they know about books.
"So I think it becomes almost a cause celebre for book lovers, and there's plenty of space for that despite all that's going on with the internet and with the economy."