Thanet Writers Research Independent Bookshops

Writer Setareh Ebrahimi researches independent bookshops on behalf of Thanet Writers.

Image Credit: 
Jan Davidsz. de Heem / Public Domain

Independent bookshops have had an interesting journey. As chain bookshops such as Borders and Waterstones became more popular, the independents started to lose sales and struggled to drum up interest. However, those same chain bookstores then went on to struggle after online retailers (or perhaps it’s fairer to say retailer, as Amazon is the biggest culprit) took their sales in turn with cut prices. Though there are a lot of ethical questions surrounding Amazon, but arguably they ultimately offer the public something that other retailers do not: books at drastically cut prices. In order to compete with the likes of Amazon, other book retailers have to offer something different.

The number of independent bookshops declined every year from 1995, where there were 1,894 of them, to 2016, where only 867 remained. However, in 2017 the situation changed and the total number of independent bookshops increased by one. In 2018, the number of independent bookshops rose to 883, reflecting the increased interest in them. In East Kent alone I can see the trend of independent bookshops thriving, with the Margate Bookshop—which had previously operated as a pop-up—opening a permanent space in Margate recently.

Bookshops—whether chain stores or independent—can offer a personalised service of bookseller knowledge and staff recommendation, which is a different approach to the likes of Amazon’s public reviews system, and turns shopping at a bookshop into an ‘experience.’ This idea is pushed further by offering café services. In this fashion, corporate retailers tend to partner with big chain coffee shops. Added value can sometimes be found in the gift market by selling knickknacks and general goods. It is in this ‘experience’ concept where independent bookshops can think even further out of the box and—crucially—expand and reduce their business with far less difficulty depending on sales and trends. This is much harder for chain stores to do as there are trapped in a more linked, overall sales mentality across all stores.

There are many advantages to independent bookshops, once you start thinking about them. Firstly, independent bookshops are unique. If you go into a chain store (other than the few that appear to be independent and are missing the corporate branding) you expect the same décor and layout, which may be neat and tidy but does not necessarily stand out as having its own personality. Contrastingly, each independent bookshop is different and unique, with its own distinct identity.

Independent bookshops are also interesting spaces. I’m thinking of the obvious example of The Bookbarge in London, which is literally a barge. Linked to this is the fact that independent bookshops are typically run by booklovers, rather than driven by shareholder profit. As a result, more booklovers make the effort to frequent them. Visiting independent bookshops can become a pilgrimage, and a person may take a trip to a town just to visit a particular bookshop.

Another way in which independent bookshops try to have an edge over other retailers is by holding events. For example, Harbour Books in Whitstable hosts Words on Waves, a monthly poetry event which in turn encourages writers and audience to look at and perhaps buy books. As well as this, independent bookshops are supported by local writers; they often feature local writers and launch their latest books, which can include elements of the surrounding environment.

There are many other ways that local bookshops become part of the community. Many independent bookshops also have a personal element to their layout, or are a shared space with another business but both owned and run as one, such as the Chapel in Broadstairs, which is a pub but also a bookshop, or the Margate Bookshop, which offers a writers’ room space for hire.

Independent bookshops, and the personal touch they offer, seem to be the way forward in the current economic market, though chain stores are also showing signs of success. Ultimately, the more shops selling books—and the more people buying them—is a good thing, no matter the ownership, but a good balance between corporate and independent will keep the market healthy. Independent shops might just have the edge over chain stores that sometimes struggle due to the internet and the pitfalls of inflation, and people trying to shop during times of austerity. Due to this, they are the less capitalistic option and, in conjunction with their community activity, makes them the more ethical choice for the book buyer.

Setareh Ebrahimi performs regularly, and is a poet working in Faversham, Kent. She is the author of In My Arms from Bad Betty Press.

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