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No shelving these Brighton and Hove independent bookstores despite drop in numbers
Once upon a time there were independent bookshops in every town and village.
But the last 20 years have seen shops packing up and closing their doors in their droves.
Things started to change in 1997 when net book pricing was abolished, allowing chains and supermarkets to slash their prices.
More recently, the arrival of big bookshops, e-books, Kindles and Amazon have all cost the independents dearly. In the last four years, 19 indies have closed in Sussex alone.
What keeps the surviving independent bookshops alive?
Some have diversified, and for others it’s the individuality of the shops and experienced staff that keeps them going.
Last week was Independent Booksellers Week (IBW) – a week-long celebration of independent bookshops highlighting the distinctive personal service they provide for book lovers and the unique role they play in their communities.
And despite the gloomy outlook, the remaining 32 independent stores believe there is still much to celebrate.
Organised by The Booksellers Association (BA), and now in its seventh year, this year 360 bookshops around the UK took part and hosted hundreds of events, ranging from author talks and literary lunches to children’s illustration workshops and Where’s Wally? hunts.
Meryl Halls, head of membership services, BA, said: “There are torrid pressures on high street booksellers, and retailers generally. High street bookshops are having a tough time at the moment, and booksellers are responding by going to greater and greater lengths to make their shops appealing to customers, with events, offers and many other community initiatives.”
Sussex-based author Peter James said: “If the bookshops of Brighton and Hove, and its libraries, had not been as accessible to me as a child, I am not sure whether I would ever have become a writer.
“I loved to immersemyself in the world of books, and to engage in conversations about books with the booksellers and librarians, from whom I learned so much about what to read, at a very early age.
“I think that personal touch is utterly vital to the reading experience. And for me, nothing online can ever replicate that wonderful smell and unique sensation one experiences being surrounded by books on the shelves of a passionate bookshop.”
So far this year, there have been no bookshop closures, and there are still some extremely successful independent bookshops in Sussex.
City Books on Western Road was opened in 1986 by Paul and Inge Sweetman.
When asked what makes a good bookshop, Paul said: “A good general bookshop will have knowledgeable and approachable staff, a range of books which have depth and breadth, and are tailored to suit the local population, and an atmosphere which is conducive to browsing.
“The competition is strong and we need to be at our best in order to prosper. Bookselling is a vocation.
“Our size is our strength. We have a very good idea of what our customers want.
“It is the advantage of being local. We do not have a head office telling us what to stock, and we can respond quickly to changes in demand.”
Mr Sweetman believes the people of Brighton and Hove are good at supporting local shops.
He said: “We are fortunate to be selling books in Brighton and Hove, where people love to support their independent shops.”
While book sales are declining, Mr Sweetman does not believe that it is all doom and gloom.
He said: “Ebooks have helped to expand readership. Research shows that the majority of people who buy eBooks also buy physical books.
“There are books that they want to own rather than just read. It is also difficult to giftwrap an eBook.
“Lots of independents are flourishing. It all comes down to the location of the shop, as well as the skill and enthusiasm of individual booksellers.”
Although City Books has diversified to sell stationery, they are convinced that their future lies with selling books, not “toys or cakes”.
The BOOK NOOK
The Book Nook is an awardwinning independent bookshop for children of all ages.
Opened in March 2009, The Book Nook in Hove provides books for newborns to young adults, with a café selling coffee and home-made cakes.
Julie Ward, co-owner, said: “We spend 90% of our time recommending books to our customers – which you can’t get from Amazon – and feedback from our customers is that they know we will always come up with some lovely suggestions and are always satisfied that they will leave with good books.
“Also, with children’s books we believe it is a different market from general books as firstly eBooks can’t offer the same reading and sharing experience for a picture book.
“With Amazon not paying their taxes we had a number of customers emailing orders to us and saying that they will only buy from us now.”
Although the shop has a loyal customer base, it holds at least two major events each month to make sure that it attracts more customers.
Similar to other indies, the bookshop has an attached coffee shop.
Mrs Ward continued: “It is all about making the families feel comfortable, enjoying the experience and wanting to come again.”
THE KEMPTOWN BOOKSHOP
The Kemptown Bookshop was shortlisted Best Independent Bookshop in the UK in 2012.
Established more than 40 years ago, the shop is home to 10,000 titles across all ranges.
Shop manager Kristian Berggreen, pictured, said the business had only managed to survive because of its large base of loyal customers and through selling greetings cards and limited-edition prints, which make up about a quarter of its revenue.
He said: “We can’t compete directly with supermarkets on price but you can’t walk into Tesco and order a book.
“We provide a unique service because we can order from two major wholesalers and most requests can be delivered by the next day.”
Mr Berggreen, 71, believes bookshops are struggling because of online shopping, eBooks and the increasing number of charity shops selling books.
However, he does believe that a revival may be on the way.
He said: “eBooks are just another way of reading. I don’t believe they will completely take over.
“I think there has been an increase in communities rallying together and spending money locally.”
Mr Berggreen said the key to survival for independent bookshops is to specialise and sell other products.
He continued: “We have survived because of our loyal customer base. Our customers are aware they might be able to get books cheaper elsewhere but they would rather use us.
“The long-term future I am not too optimistic about, but in the short term I think we are seeing a revival. As long as people are willing to support local shops we will be OK.”
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