Push open the door of a bookshop and the world instantly becomes a more interesting place. For many of us, the tantalising chance of finding that special book on the shelf around the next corner has cast a spell since childhood.
However, tough times on the High Street, fuelled partly by the online onslaught, has meant end of story for many of our favourite stores.
A quiet revolution, though, could provide a twist in the tale. Last year saw a 31 per cent rise in hardback book sales income, according to the Publishers’ Association.
It’s a statistic to gladden the heart of Linda Furniss. At the age of 64, Linda has fulfilled a long-held ambition and opened a bookshop, The Stripey Badger, in the tourist hotspot of Grassington in the Yorkshire Dales. The shop boasts a complementary café of the same name, run by her sister Jacqueline. Her son, James, 21, makes it a real family affair by running the bookshop with Linda.
“I first wanted to have a bookshop when I was about 15,” says Linda, who is Marketing and Development Manager for Ripon Museums. “But I never thought I’d own one. After we made the decision to relocate back home (she is from the Pateley Bridge area) to the Yorkshire Dales two years ago I thought ‘now is my chance.’”
She had done some of the groundwork by seeking advice from a book store in Keswick, where she was a tourism manager. “They gave me a lot of their time and were so helpful.” She admits, though, that she still had her doubts. “As the opening day approached I might have given up but my sister and my son said ‘we’re doing it.’ They drove it through and I’m glad they did.”
James has clearly been inspired by the whole venture. “I’ve loved books ever since I read Paddington Bear as a young child,” he says. “Now I’m surrounded all day by the stuff I love.”
He has another important motivation. “Independent bookshops can be a community centre, and I love being part of the community. People can meet friends here in the café and then look at the books and that’s very appealing.”
James and Linda are seeking to develop the personal touch in other ways. “We can chat to people about books they like and make recommendations,” says Linda. “After a few weeks we are getting regular customers and book orders. We are really taking on the online challenge.”
Their approach was endorsed by author Julia Chapman, after she cut the ribbon to mark the official opening of The Stripey Badger. “It is important to provide something more than books,” says Julia, who signed copies of The Dales Detective series on opening day. “If you know your stock and know your customer’s taste you can recommend a book.
“You have to have expertise, but also offer add-ons. I’m a keen cyclist and many cycling shops have a coffee shop. People no longer go shopping just to buy things. They go out for an experience. A book store can become a meeting place and be like another village hall.”
Linda believes the bookshop and café can drive business to each other. “I never thought an independent bookshop could work on its own but the combination of coffee, cakes and books can hopefully be a winning trio. Having the café gives us a leading edge. People can order a book and when they collect it the next day they can have a free cup of coffee.”
James, who studied astrophysics at university, hopes the shop can become a hub for a science club, which he would host. He believes some people may prefer a book-based approach and a chance to chat and learn, rather than “going straight to Google”.
James and Linda are clearly on a mission, but, you may ask, is Grassington the right place to pursue it? Although there is another book store in the village, Linda believes she can also be successful by offering a different range of titles. “To get many bestsellers or children’s books, for instance, you’d otherwise have had to go to Ripon, Harrogate or Ilkley.”
She also points out she has a prime location at the top of The Square in Grassington and she is very grateful to a long-time friend for the store’s striking Badger artwork, which is also prominent in the café.
“You see the Stripey Badger sign as soon as you get near the Square,” she says.
“Grassington has some lovely shops, but I think it was missing this type of bookshop. The visitor economy is hugely important for everyone here and we’re getting coach trippers, weekend visitors and walkers.”
How did she decide, though, what they would like to read? “It took four days choosing, re-choosing and finalising. First we decided on our favourites.
“In my case it was history and historical romance, and for James, science and science fiction.” Bestsellers and children’s fiction were also prioritised before some agonising over the rest of the titles. It proved to be well worthwhile. “When all the books arrived it was absolutely thrilling,” recalls Linda. “We sat there like kids in a chocolate shop. It was fantastic.”
She was supported “every step of the way” throughout the selection and setting out stage by Andrew Whelan, from wholesalers Gardners. The smallest details were covered, including placing of books on shelves with some covers pointing towards the customer to catch the eye.
“We spent £10,000 on the books and even if we’d spent £20,000, it wouldn’t have been enough to jam-pack the shelves. But we’ve had customers say it’s lovely to see what we’ve got, so we may leave it like that.”
The number of books may stay the same but Linda is not one to embrace the status quo in a challenging market. Already on the menu are ‘‘Cream Tea with the Author’’ events. “They will be bookable, and we’ll test out the format of a 20-minute talk, followed by tea and cream scones and a chance to chat. They’ll also be book signing.”
She may be living the dream at an opportune time, according to some upbeat views from the Booksellers’ Association. Against the trend of recent years, 39 newly opened independent bookshops joined the Association last year. Association managing director Meryl Halls has described the figure as very encouraging.
“Not only have independent bookshop numbers stabilised, but membership numbers in general have continued to grow, with more bookshops in BA membership than ever before,” she says. The overall membership, including the larger stores, now stands at more than 5,000. We sincerely hope the 2017 figures are a sign of things to come for the bookselling sector,” added Halls.
And Linda’s own shop is showing encouraging early signs. “It has gone better than I thought. Book orders have taken off better than expected and people have been pleased when we’ve found obscure books they’ve been searching out for a long time. Residents have said it’s fabulous to have us here and tourists are spotting us as they come up the street.”
And, hopefully, pushing open the door to a far more interesting world than the on-screen version.