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Independent Midlands bookshops bid to open new chapter

By Mark Andrews | Much Wenlock | In-depth | Published:

Tomorrow marks the beginning of Independent Bookshop Week – but small retailers are having to work increasingly hard to fend of the internet giants.

Booka Bookshop owners Carrie and Tim Morris

In 1995 there were 1,894 independent bookshops dotted across the British Isles. By 2016, the figure had fallen to 867.

The past couple of years have seen a slight improvement, but that will come as little consolation to the staff and customers of Southcart books in Walsall, which closed its doors last year after just four years.

Or for Wenlock Books in Much Wenlock, which will mark its final chapter at the end of this month, after 32 years as a mainstay of the town.

Anna Dreda, owner of Wenlock Books, says small independent booksellers face an uphill battle competing against the likes of Amazon.

Anna Dreda of Wenlock Books, due to close at the end of the month

"January and February were very quiet, it didn't really pick up in March and April and it still hasn't in May really," she says.

Friday marks the start of Independent Bookshop Week, a festival of all things literary where the independent bookshops fight back against the online behemoths.

More than 400 bookshops across the British Isles will be holding events over the week. Among them will be Booka Bookshop in Oswestry, which will be hosting novelist Victoria Hislop on Monday, Newsnight presenter Kirsty Wark on Tuesday, and children's author Katherine Rundell on Wednesday.

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Booka, founded by husband-and-wife team Carrie Morris 10 years ago, has been one of the trade's big success stories. But Carrie says times are still difficult, and says bookshops have to do far more than just sell books if they are to survive.

"We are living in challenging times with continuing threats to the high street," she says, adding that Independent Bookshop Week provides an opportunity for booksellers to show what they are about.

Southcart Books is among the shops which is closing in the face of a tough landscape

"We are more than just bookshop, we are more than our four walls," she says. The shop holds regular events with well-known authors and also runs reading clubs.

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"We are actively engaging with our reading community and beyond," says Carrie, who previously worked as a primary school teacher.

"We are working hard to grow our business and we support and use as many other local businesses as we can."

Tim, who used to work as a town planner, says the one thing bookshops can do, which the online giants can't, is offer a personal service.

“Putting the right book into a customer’s hand and have that customer then return to the shop and say ‘I loved that book’ is great,” he says.

Of course, it is not just the independents which have suffered from the decline in the high street and the rise of Amazon. Ottakars, Dillons and Borders were the staple of many a high street 20 years ago, but have long vanished. A decade ago W H Smith had bookshops in every high street, but has now withdrawn from many towns including Wolverhampton, Dudley, Stourbridge and Wellington, focusing instead on smaller branches at places such as hospitals and rail stations.

Wenlock Books – closing soon

Waterstones, originally an independent bookseller set up by former W H Smith employee Tim Waterstone, is now owned by hedge fund company Elliott Management, which has also recently acquired struggling American book giant Barnes & Noble. Already, Waterstones' managing director has been appointed to turnaround the fortunes of Barnes & Noble, and it remains to be seen whether there will be further collaboration in a bid to take on the likes of Amazon.

Mr Daunt says: "Physical bookstores the world over face fearsome challenges from online and digital. We meet these with investment and with all the more confidence for being able to draw on the unrivalled bookselling skills of these two great companies."

Part of the Booksellers Association's Books Are My Bag campaign, this year's Independent Bookshop Week will celebrate holiday reading, bookshop tourism, and bookshop heroes.

Emma Bradshaw, head of campaigns at Booksellers Association says: “This year’s IBW is already looking bigger and better than ever.

The event, which runs until June 22, also sees author and former Doctor Who screenwriter Ben Aaronovitch visit Burway Books in Church Stretton on Wednesday next week, signing copies of his latest novel October Man.

He says: “I love a good independent bookshop, nowhere else can get the same sense of cosy familiarity coupled with the excitement of never knowing what you're going to find on the next shelf.

"I think, like libraries, that they are cultural resource we will lose at our peril.”

Mark Andrews

By Mark Andrews
@MAndrews_Star

Senior news writer for the Shropshire Star specialising in in-depth features and commentary, investigative reporting and political matters.

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