#MondayBlogs: Ross Bradshaw on winning Independent Bookshop of the Year

Five Leaves winning

In this guest blog Ross Bradshaw explains what winning Independent Bookshop of the Year means to him and his staff – and it’s more than having the carpet cleaned. Back in Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread we featured Ross and his bookshop because we were thrilled someone had the balls to open a bookshop when print media was supposedly dead.   

Just round the corner from Five Leaves Bookshop is a statue of Brian Clough, sometime manager of Nottingham Forest (described as the “bronze homophobe” by one of our customers). Among Clough’s famous quotes is “I wouldn’t say that I was the best manager in the business. But I was in the top one.” For one year only, Five Leaves can say something similar, without having to get involved in football. We are currently the Independent Bookshop of the Year. We won the accolade at the British Book Awards, the booktrade “Oscars”.

clough

Byron Clough was first created for LeftLion in 2010. I had great fun with Al Needham coming up with a suitable quote for this monstrous hybrid. Then he was brought to life in issue 5 in 2014.

And it was like the Oscars. Red carpet, 1,000 important people in the industry, at the Grosvenor in London, posh frocks, dinner jackets… and us. Yes, we did wear DJs too, including Leah from the shop who also (according to some of the women present) won the dress award, because she wasn’t wearing one. Leah also did a traditional Oscars thing when she accepted the award on behalf of the shop by forgetting her lines – but only during the bit when she was saying who her fellow workers were. She should perhaps have learned our names over the last four years she has worked here.

What did we win it for? Well, perhaps not for our setting, in a previously forgotten jitty near Primark or for our vast selection of books on military history (we don’t have any) or our lack of political bias. We are biased. But the judges liked that our stock is carefully curated (kill me, I used that word), that we engage with lots of different communities in the events we run (88 last year, or 92 depending on which member of staff you ask) and the projects we run. They liked that two of our former staff published important books last year. And they liked that we were organising/initiating and funding Feminist Book Fortnight nationally. That’s just happened, involving fifty bookshops, a couple of galleries and two or three other organisations. And they liked that we had made a radical, independent bookshop economic, and diverse in our staff, our stock, our programme of events.

Five Leaves blog pic

Diversity is the big thing in the trade at the moment – trying to change the profile of the staff in the industry, trying to change the profile of the books that are sold/published. There’s a long way to go, but a week after our award our trade association launched a fund to help bookshops work on diversity in their programming and in every way they can. The Booksellers Association has put our money where their mouth is and we are pleased about that.

What has the award meant? Well, there was a financial prize. Have you noticed that we have had a refit? That’s where most of the money went. We even had the carpet cleaned, so please take your shoes off before coming in from now on. But it meant a lot to our customers. There wasn’t a popular vote, but customers of the shortlisted bookshops were invited to say why they shopped with us all. Names were redacted by the BA but they sent out a selection of the comments. We blushed. And we picked up new customers – thank you East Midlands Today for reaching some people we’d not managed to reach in four and a half years.

So, not long until our fifth birthday. On our birthday weekend we started giving people a discount – 1% a year. A daft joke, but nobody refused their 1, 2, 3, 4% discounts so far and they probably won’t at 5% around November 9th (our actual birthday). But it looks like we are in for a reasonably long hall, which is worrying as Hatchards in London opened in 1797. If they’d done our daft joke they’d have been paying people to take books away for over a hundred years.

Five Leaves Bookshop, 14a Long Row, Nottingham, NG1 2DH
Tel: 0115 8373097 Open 10-5.30 Monday-Saturday, 12-4 Sundays

RELATED READING

 

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Beautiful Bookshops: Aardvark Books

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Brampton Bryan is a small village in north Herefordshire that straddles the Shropshire and Welsh borders. I’d originally come to have a look at an ancient Yew hedge that bends and curves along the main road, but then I saw a sign for Aardvark books. At first I thought it was an old sign that hadn’t been taken down yet as I was directed to a carpark on a farm with large cow sheds. It turned out that these were home to 50,000 books and a café.

shed ardvaark

Aardvark started life towards the end of 2003 after two former Harpercollins Executives decided to convert the disused buildings on the farm into a bookshop with the help of £100,000. The owners wanted to name the bookshop after an animal and it became Aardvark after ‘Squirrel’ was rejected. No hidden meanings or symbolism, just a love of nature.

If you haven’t been put off by the shabby exterior of the barn as you enter the farm (left image) you’ll come to a more aesthetically pleasing bricked front entrance with an outdoor seating area (right image). Greeting you at the entrance is a lot of local history paraphernalia. The counter is to the left, surrounded by books waiting to be priced up or dispatched, and a small brass bell on the counter to ring when you want serving. If you go straight ahead you enter an open plan café in the middle of the bookshop. This is a good use of space as it means the smell of coffee follows you through the rooms. The café is surrounded by art, cookery and gardening books. These seem appropriately placed as they’re the kind of books you can dip in and out of while tucking into a cake.

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To the side is a children’s reading room, kitted out in the design of a castle so kids can run around and let off steam. The stairs to the back of the café led me to a DH Lawrence section where I purchased a copy of FR Leavis’s DH Lawrence: Novelist. There were plenty of Lawrence paperbacks and a copy of The First Lady Chatterley. These specialist texts are offset by a bargain basement collection; and for those who want the latest bright thing, fear not. The proprietors had recently returned with fresh stock from the London Bookfair, so expect to find new authors nestling shoulders with the canon. The varied and diverse stock allows for serendipity, which is the key to a good bookshop because it means you never want to leave because you don’t know what you’re going to discover next.

As Five Leaves recently demonstrated when they became independent bookshop of the year, the key to success is building community. Aardvark do this through a varied series of events. Previously they’ve hosted art exhibitions, and a rare collection of maps of Shropshire – some of which dated back to 1607. On 14 July there’s a jazz brunch. They make the most of their surroundings too, such as through an annual Vide Grenier (yard sale doesn’t sound so glamorous in English) which brings together various stalls against the backdrop of live music. But the most adventurous event has to be the English Civil War Society re-enactment which includes cannons, muskets and lots of dressing up.

When Dawn of the Unread was created in 2013 we tried to start a conversation about whether libraries and bookshops could become focal points of the community in the digital age. As libraries increasingly become run by volunteers or lumped into one stop centres to appease the diminishing budgets of councils, bookshops, such as Aardvark, seem to be the most viable option. Becoming the hub of a community means listening to locals, putting on relevant events, and giving punters plenty of excuses to make a visit. A good bookshop is also one that you don’t want to leave. The varied stock was enough to keep me intrigued, as was the expertise of the owners. I had an interesting chat about Roy Hattersley and his brilliant biography of William and Catherine Booth. I was nearly convinced to buy his book about the Edwardians, but resisted. Now I’m having regrets. Now I need to go back again.

Aardvark Books,The Bookery, Manor Farm, Brampton Bryan, Bucknell SY7 0DH

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

#MondayBlogs Much Ado About Wenlock: A home for book lovers

We’ve been very busy working on Dawn of the Unread II: ‘Whatever People Say I Am‘, but decided to take a break to head down to Much Wenlock to visit a tiny little library and two bookshops that have cemented themselves within the heart of the community.   

Much Wenlock is a tiny town in Shropshire, snuggled on the A458. It’s big brother to the aptly named Little Wenlock, which is 7 miles away down the A4169. Wenlock most likely comes from the Celtic name Wininicas (white area) which is a reference to the limestone of Wenlock Edge rather than any affiliation with UKIP. Loca means ‘enclosed place’. Wenlock Edge was the subject of several poems by A.E Houseman in A Shropshire Lad (1896). One of these (XVII) suggested that playing cricket could help console a broken heart, leading Edith Sitwell (who features in issue 1 of our comic) to comment: “If he means to say that cricket, and cricket alone, has prevented men from committing suicide, then their continuation on this earth seems hardly worthwhile.” Ouch!

Visitors to these parts are most likely making a pilgrimage to the 12th century Priory or to pay homage to William Brookes, but we’re here for the bookshops and the library.

In terms of literary history, Much Wenlock can boast Carol Ann Duffy as the patron of their annual Poetry Festival (6 May), Mary Webb (25 March 1881 – 8 October 1927), the romantic novelist whose work inspired the parody Cold Comfort Farm, and the English classicist and feminist Mary Beard (1955-) who the late A.A. Gill once described as ‘too ugly for television’. If you want to read Beard, we’d recommend starting with her TLS blog A Don’s Life or Women & Power: A Manifesto (2017)

library

Much Wenlock Library is situated within the Grade 2 listed Corn Exchange building. It’s the tiniest library we’ve ever seen, occupying a small rectangle of space and snuggled under three arches. The Corn Exchange was built in 1852 and originally included an agriculture library. There’s a marble tablet dated 1887 that pays homage to Dr William Penny Brookes (13 August 1809 – 11 December 1895), the founding father of the modern Olympic Games with the purpose of “to promote the moral, physical and intellectual improvement of the inhabitants of the Town and neighbourhood of Wenlock”.

It’s very hard to obtain any information about the library as the website links on the Shropshire Council website don’t work. It’s also only open for two and a half days a week and was closed when we visited. 12 of Shropshire’s libraries faced reduced hours as of 2016 in an attempt to save £55,000, as reported in The Shropshire Star. Ludlow North councillor, Andy Boddington, said: “We are entering dangerous territory. Once opening hours for libraries and other public services are cut back, they are rarely restored. When people get used to facilities being closed a lot of the time, they use them less.”

much more books

The town boasts two bookshops. Much More Books (6 High Street) is over 10 years old and boasts a collection of 40,000 books to browse through. Like many modern bookshops they have a digital presence, largely because they specialise in out of print and rare books. The shelves are stacked high and well categorised. My favourite section was old maps, some of which date back to the early 1900s and fold out of leather cases. There was also a substantial volume of DH Lawrence books, so we purchased five Penguin editions of his short stories (£10 in total). These were in excellent condition, making me feel guilty about defacing them with a yellow marker as I continue research for DH Lawrence: A Digital Pilgrimage. What I liked most about this bookshop was they welcomed dog walkers and staff looked up at you from the till, as if wanting to have a conversation. Always a good sign. It wins the award for the strangest music I’ve heard in a bookshop. When we visited on 9 March they were playing some strange mystical music with a bit of a dance beat. The kind of thing I’d expect to hear in a holistic shop in Glastonbury.

wenlock books

Wenlock Books (12 High Street), a few shops up the road, is an independent bookshop that prides itself on introducing readers not only to standard editions, but quality imprints such as Persephone, Little Toller and our favourite, Slightly Foxed for memoirs. They also stock the Collector’s Library, pocket sized editions with gold edges, pale blue covers and a ribbon bookmark. Owner Anna Dreda is keen to curate tastes, saying ‘introducing readers to books that they might not otherwise have happened upon is one of the enduring joys of my life’. Upstairs they have a collection of second hand books as well as access to coffee making facilities. They also put on a series of events, that include Poetry Breakfast (second Thursday of the month, 9-10am) and Knitting and Poetry (fourth Thursday of the month, 2.30pm-4pm). This is a bookshop that is very hard to leave. And if you do manage to lure yourself away, the alleyway at the side of the shop (leading to a restaurant courtyard), has more books – and they’re here 24/7. This is known as ‘honesty alley’ and books are paid for through donation. Money raised goes to the Friends of Conakry Refugee School in Guinea, West Africa.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

 

FURTHER READING

#MondayBlogs Small Good Places: On Bookshops – Prof Andrew Thacker

ross books

Issue 5 of Dawn of the Unread saw Byron Clough address the closure of independent bookshops

In this guest blog, Professor Andrew Thacker explores the challenges faced by contemporary bookshops. The rise of online selling and the ease of reading on digital devices paints a pretty bleak picture for print media. But then in 2015 something strange started to happen in America…  

On a recent trip to Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham my conversation with Ross, the owner, was interrupted while he got on with the proper business of selling books. First up, someone who wanted the book companion to BBC’s television’s Blue Planet. Ross found the book she wanted.  Then there was a guy who brought a couple of slim volumes of poetry to the counter: ‘I’m not sure you’ll want to buy that one once I tell you the price’, said Ross.  Sure enough, the high cost of this slim volume imported from the US put the buyer off, but he picked something else up instead and then a conversation was held between the two about a future reading by the said poet.  Finally, a man with a holdall laden down with what seemed to be second-hand books came up to the counter, his arms stuffed full of left-wing pamphlets and magazines: ‘Have you got the latest Socialist Register?’ he enquired.  Not yet available was the reply, but Ross did furnish him with a tote bag for his purchases with the hammer and sickle upon it, a freebie that delighted the customer. A short conversation about the radical bookshop, Housman’s, in London then ensured.

This is the culture of the modern independent bookshop that I love, the experience of which you cannot get with one-click buying on-line. Recently I was lucky to be at an academic conference in Boston, in the US, and took time out from the papers and panels to visit a bookshop.  This was the Grolier Poetry Bookshop, located just off the campus of Harvard University, and a shop that has been supplying poetry alone since 1927.  The shop was beautiful, a small place which treasured books as material objects and which exuded a calming presence, wonderfully suited to the somewhat rarefied pleasures of slim books of verse.  I browsed and soaked up the atmosphere, admiring the numerous photos of visiting poets, as well as the broadside poems printed on a wall, a tradition going back several centuries.  I bought a tiny book of obscure poems and left, recharged by the cultural aura of the shop as much as by the pleasure in purchasing the actual book.

How much longer, however, will such places as the Grolier – the independent bookshop devoted to the culture of books, poetry and otherwise – continue? I suspect all academic bookbuyers of a certain age (which is what I am) will have memories of a favourite bookshop, whether on campus or nearby, or a secondhand store in which bargain copies of textbooks could be snapped up. For me the musty smell of an old bookshop is a sensory pleasure akin to Proust’s madeleine. But does the bookshop still hold a special place in the hearts of all academics?  And do the obscure pleasures of the bookshop still appeal to our students?  With the disappearance of many independent bookshops often staff and students just don’t live anywhere near to one of the ‘small good places’, as the American sociologist Ray Oldenburg, described certain bookstores (along with cafes and bars) that formed the heart of particular urban communities.  We might well give our undergraduate reading lists to our campus bookshop, but do we – like 72% of our students according to a recent survey by market researcher Nielsen’s – then purchase our own books online, aware that time spent browsing away from our office in a physical bookshop for the latest monograph recommended by a colleague is time away from attending meetings?  Isn’t it just quicker to order via Amazon’s ‘one-click’ service on the app on our phone, then turn back to our emails? On the Berkeley campus of the University of California the central student union now has an Amazon pick-up point for students (and presumably staff) to order online and collect on campus: with around 40,000 students enrolled here I am sure they are doing good business, even though the spartan book-free space does not resemble anything like the glorious labyrinth of a traditional bookstore.

book readers

I have been carrying out research, funded by the Leverhulme Trust, on the history of the modern bookshop, exploring how independent bookshops such as City Lights in San Francisco (publisher of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl) or Shakespeare and Company in Paris (publisher of James Joyce’s Ulysses) have been important institutions in the development of modern literature and culture.  But I have also been interested in the wider culture of the contemporary bookshop, challenged as it has been over the last two decades by the rise of online selling and digital reading devices, as pioneered by Jeff Bezos with the founding of Amazon in 1994.  A few years ago it appeared that bookshops were in a state of terminal decline. According to an article in Daily Telegraph in 2011 nearly 2000 bookshops had closed in Britain since 2005; while The Bookseller reported that independent bookshops closed at the rate of one a week in 2012, leaving just over 1000 such premises. Even the big chain booksellers, partly responsible for the closure of many independents in the 1980s and 90s, were threatened, and the closure of Borders in 2011 was taken to be a sign that the days of physical bricks and mortar bookshops were coming to a close.

However, in 2015, Oren Teicher, the head of the American trade organization, the American Booksellers’ Association, announced a rise in the number of new independent bookshops, and boldly claimed that “We are engaged in decoupling the word ‘endangered’ from ‘bookstores’.” While in the UK, the Publishers Association this year revealed that sales of print books were rising, while sales of e-books fell for the first time since 2011.  Of course, some or much of this rise in sales of print books could have occurred online rather than in physical locations, but the decision of Amazon in 2015 to open its first bricks and mortar store in Seattle seemed to indicate that the times were changing for bookselling.

foyles

Foyles bookshop appeared in issue 7 of Dawn of the Unread

The endurance and (partial) revival of the bookshop is due to more than simply the sale of books: bookstores for many years now have been places where other activities have proliferated, such as drinking coffee, listening to authors reading, attending a book group, or viewing an exhibition.  Many of these practices have been around since the early twentieth century: Harold Monro’s famous Poetry Bookshop in Bloomsbury opened in 1913 and hosted weekly readings for many years; it also rented out rooms above the shop to poets and artists such as Robert Frost and Jacob Epstein.  The current manifestation of Shakespeare and Company in Paris has carried on this tradition, with Jeanette Winterson writing in her memoir, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? (2011), of a recuperative period spent within its booklined walls. The lure of a well-designed spatial environment for a bookshop, as seen in the revived Foyles in Charing Cross Road, London, shows that what continues to attract people to the physical bookshop seems to be more than simply its new or used contents.  The Last Bookstore, in downtown Los Angeles, is perhaps the last word in what might be called a ‘destination bookshop’, ones visited by tourists for the experience of their interiors more than for the quality of their stock.  The Last Bookstore offers a fascinating use of interior space and dimmed, noir-esque lighting to creating an atmosphere of the bookshop as purveyor of quirkiness.  Some traditionalists might blanch at the use of books as architectural features, as in the hundreds used to support the cash-desk or those that carve out its impressive ‘book tunnel’. But for anyone who has ever been entranced by the quiet charms of a bookshop, it is certainly worth a visit.

It is not surprising, then, to learn that Blackwells, one of the oldest and most established academic booksellers in the UK, announced in The Bookseller recently that it was trialling two ‘enhanced concept stores’ on the university campuses of Cardiff and Liverpool, integrating their online selling into the physical location and creating a more ‘spacious’ and ‘social experience’, according to Blackwell’s head of sales, Scott Hamilton, that combines a café, seating, and digital display screens. “The big thing I wanted to change was the look and feel of the shops,” said Hamilton. “They are more modern, the ceilings are more open.’  It might only be a matter of time before the styling of The Last Bookshop has an impact upon a new campus bookstore, hoping that students will rediscover the pleasures of bookshop browsing as part of metropolitan hipster culture, along with craft beers and vinyl records (The Last Bookstore has a very good vinyl section).

The Nielsen’s survey suggests that bookshops, of all varieties, retain an important function in the student experience: of students buying new print titles during last academic year, 41% bought from a physical bookseller, with 25% from a campus bookshop, and 18% from a high-street shop.  Not surprisingly, however, Amazon still dominates the selling of books to students, with 70% of respondents having brought from the online giant, although the share of total volume sales had grown in campus bookshops. Small, good places might have a long struggle ahead of them, especially if Amazon move onto more university campuses, but there are at least the glimmers that the pleasures of physical bookshop culture will endure and the interactions between bookseller and customer that I witnessed recently in Five Leaves will continue.

Andrew Thacker is a Professor of English at Nottingham Trent University. As part of the Being Human Festival he will be giving a talk on ‘The rise, fall and revival of the modern bookshop’ 7-8pm, Tuesday 21 November, Five Leaves Bookshop, FREE. You can book your place here

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.

Five Leaves shortlisted for Independent Bookshop of the Year Award.

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Five Leaves Bookshop, Nottingham’s radical and independent bookshop, is on the shortlist for the regional round of the UK and Ireland Independent Bookshop of the Year Award, for the second year running.  

In November 2013 Ross Bradshaw decided to do something radical, he opened up a bookshop when we were all being told that print media was dead. The opening of the shop coincided with some pretty alarming statistics, many of which inspired the creation of Dawn of the Unread. These included: independent bookshops had dropped to below 1,000 for the first time, libraries were seeing hours cut back, and according to various literacy trusts, the YouTube Generation were apparently bored of books. At that time it was the first bookshop to open in any city centre this century. It took balls as well as books.

Since then Nottingham has become a UNESCO City of Literature, and Five Leaves has established itself as a hub of intellectual debate thanks to some thoughtful events. Talks over the next fortnight include a book reading from one of the publishers of Noir Press, who publish Lithuanian fiction; rescuing refuges, a celebration of the work of Derrick Buttress, and Irish Republican women. This is all neatly rounded off with the annual States of Independence festival, now in its eighth year.

The regional shortlist covers bookshops from the Midlands and Wales group of the Booksellers Association, which will be trimmed to a national shortlist on 15 March with the final winner being announced on 8 May as part of a range of bookselling and publishing awards. The overall winner will receive £5,000 towards their business.

Five Leaves is the only shortlisted bookshop from the East Midlands this year. Ross Bradshaw, said “We are really pleased to be shortlisted again. Five Leaves is a destination bookshop rather than a shop aimed at the High Street, our strongest areas are probably politics and poetry! We also run many events – 63 last year plus an all day event in Leicester, and run bookstalls as far apart as Wakefield and London. Many of our events are in conjunction with local community groups.”

People have been predicting the death of the book for years, but they seem to be having a bit of a revival at late. Sales of printed books rose for the first time last year in four years, while ebook sales fell by 1.6% in 2015. This trend is happening across the arts. Vinyl records, another art form supposedly doomed with the advent of digital technology, outsold digital downloads last year for the first time in yonks. Digital offers ease and convenience as well as infinite duplications of content. But records, and books, have an aura, a magic about them. Tangible reality is not quite over yet, although the future of bookshops could be unless they become valued both by customers and the government.

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The pressures on opening or maintaining a bookshop is hopefully a concern for David Gauke, chief secretary of the Treasury, who this week received a letter from the Booksellers Association who fear changes to the business rate system will make it impossible for bookshops to survive on the High Street. The business rate payments are changing because of a new revaluation of property, meaning some bookshops will end up paying double of their current rent. The letter from the Booksellers, as reported in the Guardian on 25 February, “points out that the Waterstones in Bedford pays 16 times more in business rates per square foot than the nearby Amazon distribution centre.”

The main hope for Booksellers is that bookshops be given the special status of “community asset value”, given the benefits they bring to the local area. This is more important than any award, although recognition is important. We recognise bookshops as a community asset and this is why we featured Ross Bradshaw and the Five Leaves Bookshop in our Byron Clough issue of Dawn of the Unread.

You can read an article about Ross and the history of bookshops in Nottingham in one of the embedded panels in Dawn of the Unread here.

DOTU Round logoDawn of the Unread is a graphic novel celebrating Nottingham’s literary history. It was created to support libraries and bookshops. It began life online and won the Teaching Excellence Award at the Guardian Education Awards in 2015 and has since been published by Spokesman Books (2017). All profits go towards UNESCO Nottingham City of Literature.