Why independent bookshops are looking for a happy ending online

They were supposed to be a last line of defence against the giant websites that have flooded the publishing market, but as Yorkshire’s independent booksellers prepared for their annual week of celebration, many were reflecting on the salvation they had found online.

Georgia Eckert, owner of the Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate.  Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe
Georgia Eckert, owner of the Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Only six months ago they were telling a different story. After two decades of decline, small bookshops had been able to record a third successive year of modest growth. Today, few would predict how the next chapter will unfold.

The events planned for Independent Bookshop Week, which begins today, have been reshuffled and moved on to Zoom, Facebook and the other impersonal platforms to which readers have temporarily retreated.

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“Events inside bookshops are still a long way off,” said Emma Bradshaw, head of campaigns at the Booksellers’ Association, which represents 890 small retailers across the country.

Georgia Eckert, owner of the Imagined Things bookshop in Harrogate. Picture: Jonathan Gawthorpe

Around a quarter of those shops, she estimates, have ceased trading since the quarantine began in March – though she hopes not permanently.

“Only 75 per cent of our members have continued to operate on some level, and those who have carried on are 80 per cent down on their normal turnover.”

Many retailers are now reopening, she said, though some are restricting their business to “click and collect” orders placed online.

It is an irony of the present crisis that the personal service on which independent sellers pride themselves has had to take a back seat to the internet.

Georgia Eckert, who for three years has owned and run the Imagined Things Bookshop in Harrogate’s Westminster Arcade, said the website she launched during the lockdown had been a “silver lining”.

“It would have been better to stay open but at least I had more time to build the website, and that made it easier for customers to order through us,” she said.

In Saltburn-by-the-Sea, Jenna Warren, who runs the Book Corner on Milton Street, used Facebook to continue her popular reading group.

“When we couldn’t meet in person any more I put it online and decided we would pick an independent book every month because so many small publishers were struggling,” she said.

“I was surprised that people still wanted to order books, given everything else that was going on. But it won’t be sustainable on this basis for ever.”

Ms Bradshaw said it was too early to tell if the recent upward momentum in the independent sector could be maintained when the quarantine was over.

“I’m sure there will be casualties but so far only one shop has told us they won’t reopen,” she said. “And a lot of people are reassessing their lives and would love to open a bookshop of their own.”

The Children’s Laureate, Cressida Cowell, is among those taking part in Independent Bookshop Week, with a “virtual tour” calling at Little Ripon booksellers in North Yorkshire.

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