The Five Leaves Bookshop

Illustration: Raphael Achache
Illustration: Raphael Achache

We’re in the middle of a recession. People can barely afford to put on their heating let alone buy something as luxurious as a book. Yet Five Leaves publisher Ross Bradshaw has taken the brave decision to open up an independent bookshop. Thank goodness someone has got some balls…and books.   

“People are sick of central buying chains and they’re sick of Amazon. Why would you buy from someone who treats its workers badly and doesn’t pay their tax?”

When it comes to literature, Nottingham is absolutely spoilt for choice. We’ve got the Nottingham Writers’ Studio, a tonne of publishers, Writing East Midlands, an independent comic shop which can’t stop winning awards, a city-wide literature festival, as well as being the old stomping ground of the likes of Byron, Lawrence and Sillitoe. Our streets drip with history. No wonder we’re such a smug lot and notoriously difficult to please. But until November there was one missing ink to our literary equation: an independent bookshop. At the third time of trying Ross Bradshaw has finally ended this surprising absence of 13 years and set up shop at 14a Long Row. Literature wise, we’re now full metal jacket.

I say ‘surprise’ as when Ross arrived in Nottingham in 1979 there were five radical bookshops including one run by the Communist Party which disappeared in 1991, shortly after a certain wall got smashed down. He wasted little time getting involved himself and was actively involved in the legendary Mushroom Bookshop between 1979 – 1995. Prior to that there was an avant-garde bookshop called Bux and a beat orientated literary bookshop at Trent Bridge, Pavillion Road opened by Stuart Mills and Martin Parnell that ran from 1964 to 1972, that modelled itself on the likes of Better Books and Indica in London.

The Trent Bookshop is worth a quick trip down memory lane. It prided itself on an aesthetically pleasing interior, influenced by art movements such as Bauhaus, and using high quality wood for shelving. Stock was arranged in such a way that you had to delve in and rummage to find, among others, the hidden gems of experimental poetry and American literature, creating an aura around books. It became a focal point for the contemporary literary scene, extending readings to the wider community in places such as the Midland Group Gallery, bringing together artists, book-sellers, and small press publishers, serving as a blueprint into how a bookshop could and should be run.

Nottingham was also home to Sissons and Parker, a commercial bookshop that set up at 25 Wheeler Gate in 1897. It started out selling novels and dictionaries but by the 20th century was selling exercise books and pens to just about every school in the city. Things slowly started to go wrong when it was brought out by a conglomerate in the 1980s and went by the name of Hudsons and then Dillons before closing up shop after a century of trading in 2005. One of its highlights was a visit by a certain Muhammad Ali which saw queues extend around Market Square. It’s now a Sainsbury’s.

For whatever reason these bookshops have all disappeared from the high street and Ross felt it was time to address the balance. “It had bothered me for a long time that Nottingham did not have an independent bookshop. If Lowdham, a village of 1600 people can support a bookshop, surely Nottingham can support Waterstones and at least one independent.” So why did nobody open one? “Well, there are good reasons – you have to risk a lot of capital on stock, city centre rents are high, and somebody needs to know enough about books that they can fill a shop with books that people might actually want to buy. But even so! Eventually I realised that I would have to stop being bothered and just get on with it.”

After two failed attempts at setting up, Ross was successful on the third time of trying and LeftLion magazine had something to do with it. “The mag had featured Rob Howie-Smith, who specialises in returning planning blight properties to the market pending eventual redevelopment. I read the article and rang him for a chat. I could see that his gallery and cafe in the alleyway at Long Row was struggling a bit and mentioned that if that ever came available again to let me know… and in the autumn he rang me. We came to an amicable deal and we were ready to go.”

It’s been a long hard slog setting up, revolving mainly around pragmatics. “I had to learn about drainage of flat roofs, load bearing walls, heating and ventilation and spend my days cleaning, overseeing people doing practical things – I’m pretty useless personally – like painting and sawing bits of wood… and in the evening ordering thousands of books, one by one, from hundreds of publishers. That was the bit I liked.”

When I ask which books he’d recommend his face lights up. Not necessarily because he thinks he’s on to a sale but because we’re talking about books. “Anything by Rebecca Solnit. She’s written a whole pile of books about being a pedestrian and what’s interesting about her is she’s American and you don’t usually think of American’s as being pedestrian. Another is The British Beat Explosion edited by J C Wheatley. It’s about Eel Pie Island which is where all the major jazz players played and it’s full of photographs of people with embarrassing hair.”

The shop is in a cul-de-sac alley and opposite Coral. Only in Nottingham could a bookshop open up next to a Bookies! This means, gamblers aside, there’s little passing trade but Ross sees this as an advantage rather than a hindrance. “Nottingham is full of ginnels – ideal for small businesses. It is a quiet refuge from the hustle and bustle of the city centre, but not too quiet. I didn’t want to stock Jamie Oliver or celebrity/nonentity biographies anyway. The shop is not aimed at the mainstream so being central and in an unconsidered alleyway suits us fine.”

Photograph: David Parry
Photograph: David Parry

One disappointed customer in particular can testify to this. The conversation, Ross recalls, went something like this.

“Where’s your military history section?”

“We don’t have one.”

“What, not even American military history?”

“Only stuff about their invasions…”

“It’s like that, is it?”

“It’s like that.”

He may not be prepared to make a killing out of George Bush’s latest biography but there’s still financial targets to meet. “My year is divided into two. Up to Christmas and then the rest of the year. I know what our break-even point is, which is when I can’t start paying myself, but I’m not going to say what that is.” It’s going to be very competitive drawing in customers, particularly as he won’t be offering deals such as 3 for the price of 2, although there are plans for loyalty reward schemes in the future, which presumably means after Christmas.

Although it might seem a risk to open up a bookshop in the current economic climate, there is reason to be optimistic. Across the Atlantic 300 independent bookshops have started up because they offer a unique experience. Figures in the UK are not so encouraging although there are numerous examples bucking the trend, such as Looking Glass Books in Edinburgh which opened 18 months ago. So what’s the magic formula?

“You have to be a certain type of bookshop. You can’t just sit and wait for people to come or compete with the supermarkets. You have to carve out your own identity, and through doing events, having a certain profile and being in the right place, having a different type of stock, and a different kind of relationship with your customers than other bookshops you can survive. I know a number of bookshops who, in the last three or four years, have produced double digit growth figures. I was on the board of one of them, so I’ve kept very close to bookselling even though I left the trade in 1995 to go into publishing.”

The key to success is creating a real community, not one with a fancy avatar. One forthcoming event exemplifies this and will address a very local issue. “We’ll have somebody to talk about the undercover police, particularly Nottingham undercover police, who’ve become so famous recently for having relationships with people from around here. We’ll have the author of a book on that, and I expect it to be a very popular event.”

Ross is also prepared to listen to his customer’s needs (unless it has to do with American military history) and trial things out. After various requests he has created a small children’s reading section. Although don’t expect big hungry caterpillars. One book aimed at babies learning to talk is the board book of War and Peace, which is the whole of War and Peace in twelve words! He’s also conscious of complimenting the existing literary scene and so won’t be selling graphic novels in competition with the likes of Page45 or Mondo Comico. This is a refreshing attitude and the antithesis to the supermarket model, which in stocking everything, has decimated the high street.

It’s difficult to predict whether the Five Leaves Bookshop will survive but there’s certainly a growth in independents at the moment. As money gets tighter perhaps we finally care how and where we spend it. Or has our dependence on digital technology created a need for a more tactile relationship with the world? Whatever, Ross Bradshaw doesn’t seem too concerned. “I’m quite prepared to be wrong, quite prepared to go bankrupt, quite prepared to have egg on my face, but I’d rather look silly and be wrong than not have a go.”

This article was written by Robin Lewis and I (James Walker) and appears in the latest issue of LeftLion

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