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

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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.

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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.

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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

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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.

 

Oxfam, learn some manners…

We supported the Books Are My Bag campaign in our opening chapter

This is a blog that loves reading and in particular the places that make homes for books. Booksellers, for example, can’t apply for grants from the Arts Council to maintain their business even though they are vital in promoting and creating awareness of writers. Booksellers are also lumped into the category of ‘retail’ by local government and pay the same business rates as say a clothes shop, even though they will never make the same returns off stock. This is just one of many issues highlighted by the Books Are My Bag Campaign which celebrated its second birthday on Saturday.

A more suitable classification for booksellers would be education. Just take a look at the diversity of topics and writers appearing at the Five Leaves Bookshop this year, you have everything from transgender studies to Owen Jones. This is more than just selling books. It’s about facilitating debate and creating community. The success of Five Leaves is down to the absolute stubbornness of Ross Bradshaw to persevere when every level of support from above is slowly removed.

Ross Bradshaw appeared in our Byron Clough chapter. Our way of saying thank you.

All of which brings me on to a very different bookshop: Oxfam…

Charity shops receive discounted business rates which is one of the reasons there are so many of them on the high street, neatly wedged in between the Tescos, Costas, Poundstretchers and bookies. Oxfam has transformed itself over the past decade creating niche little outlets that sell bespoke clothing, records and books. They’ve done a fantastic job in changing people’s perceptions of secondhand goods and have created a business model that some of Alan Sugar’s Apprentices would do well to learn from. But I hate them. Oxfam bookshops, that is (and Apprentice candidates).

Orpington High Street

Orpington High Street

I have two major problems with Oxfam. Firstly, their books are too expensive and this boils down to my own personal perception of poverty. Prices should raise enough income for their charity but they should also be affordable for the people who have to shop there. I’ve always used charity shops as a point of principle, seeing it as a means of donating while getting something into the bargain. But £3.99 for a book that originally retailed at £7.99 is taking the piss. Particularly when the cover is creased and the pages have a coffee stain on them. This unrealistic pricing strategy will either drive customers to Amazon or out the shop.

But the thing that irritates me most about Oxfam is their inability to embrace their local community. I recently swung by the one in Nottingham city centre to see if I could drop off some brochures for the Nottingham Festival of Words, of which I am one of the directors. The Festival is a collaboration between lots of organisations in Nottingham, with events happening at lots of different venues. But Oxfam wouldn’t accept any brochures. Their reasoning: ‘We can only have information on events that promote Oxfam’.

This is the kind of attitude I’ve come to expect from corporate chains who obsess over ‘whether it’s neat and tidy, does it follow branding guidelines’, not a charity shop. Waterstones were once guilty of this selfish attitude too, not having the foresight to realise that if they had a board detailing local literary events people would come into their shop and probably buy something. Recently they’ve seen the light and have become a lot more inclusive, stocking more books by local authors and creating a space for flyers. So what’s going on with Oxfam?

You can’t receive special treatment in rates because you’re a charity and then take the corporate line when it suits. That’s just bonkers. And if nothing else it’s just rubbish business sense. Flicking through a literature brochure you might see an event that appeals and then seek out a book by that author. It’s for this reason that I’m currently reading Ali Smith, in preparation for her talk on Friday.

One thing that branding twats never get is that principles are something that are lived, not something you lob up on a website and tick off of a list. The Festival of Words have brought writers over from Syria, Afghanistan and Belfast to debate the problems faced by writers in conflict zones and divided communities. These are the kind of communities suffering extreme poverty, the very thing that Oxfam strives to support and raise awareness of. So why do they insist on creating divisions in their local community? Rant over.

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Ross Bradshaw: The comic…

Ross Bradshaw

I’ve known Ross Bradshaw for just under ten years now. He was the first publisher I met in Nottingham when I first started writing for LeftLion and is the person I turn to if I want to know anything about trade unionism, Jewish secular culture or the origins of whistling. I often bump into him at literature events (where he likes to hide at the back) or on the 45 bus where he always has an anecdote or story. He takes a little getting used to as he’s a dour Scot, but over the years I’ve grown very fond of his humour and intellect.

Ross had the balls (and the books) to open the Five Leaves Bookshop in November 2013, enabling Nottingham city centre to have its first independent bookshop since 2000. It has now become the focal point of local debate thanks to its varied public talks. For example, on September 17, the evening before the referendum on Scottish independence, he’s holding a celebration of all the literatures of Scotland, with readings in Gaelic, Doric, Border Scots, Norn – and Standard English. It’s £3, which can be redeemed against purchases made on the night, and includes either a tot of whisky or a glass of Iron Bru.

Inside the Five Leaves Bookshop. Read the issue to find out who the extra poets are...

Inside the Five Leaves Bookshop. Read the issue to find out who the extra poets are…

Ross appears in our current chapter ‘Booked’ which is written by poet Andy Croft and drawn by artist Kate Ashwin. In the comic, Lord Byron and Brian Clough are merged together in a 2-4-1 book deal which takes place inside Ross’s shop. When I informed Ross that he was appearing in a comic ‘for the first time’ he was quick to inform that this was not entirely correct. In the eighties, while running the Mushroom Bookshop, he was satirised in a cartoon strip as a ‘bourgeois capitalist pig’ (or something along those lines) in a local anarchist magazine. Apparently it can be found in the archives at The Sparrows’ Nest so if anyone comes across it, please scan us a copy.

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Ross’s contribution to literature and various radical causes can’t be captured in a blog entry but I’m glad that we’ve immortalised him in our comic, even if it isn’t for the first time. So instead I’ll end with my favourite Ross story.

On the opening night of the Five Leaves Bookshop I was queuing to pay for a book when I overheard a woman behind me complaining how difficult it was to buy a book for her sister. Curious, I interrupted the conversation and asked for more details. After listening to a breakdown of ‘the sister’ for five minutes I knew the only cure was an Alice Monroe short story collection. The woman hadn’t heard of Munroe before so we went over to the relevant shelf and I gave a brief synopsis of the four books in stock. She ended up buying them all.

I proudly made my way over to the counter and informed Ross that in addition to the £12.99 I had spent on my book I had also secured £45 in sales through my Munroe recommendations. He got up from behind the desk, walked over to the Munroe section, and said: ‘Great. Now I’ve got none of her books left. I’ll have to order more.’ This is Ross’s way of saying thank you. I think…