Reading for the future

A boom in independent bookshops reaches Wood Green

Wood Green in north London isn't traditional independent bookshop territory, but later this month, or in early December, a new venture hopes to open its doors under the name Big Green Bookshop (a name chosen earlier this month following a competition among local residents).

The store intends to replace the local Waterstone's that closed suddenly in August - one of 10 stores closed by the company this year. Sure that a market still existed in the area, the branch's former manager and assistant manager, Simon Key and Tim West, got together to try to develop a replacement shop.

"There was an outcry and immediate launch of a petition when the closure was announced," says Key. "At the start of the year the company announced that it wanted to focus on online sales and our branch was too big and impersonal for the area. There's a definite appetite for books, though: we were making a profit, albeit small."

The book industry and small bookshops in particular are widely perceived to be in crisis. According to the Booksellers Association, 1,700 independent bookshops were trading in 2000; that number is now estimated at 1,200 at worst, 1,400 at best.

Gay's The Word, a London stalwart selling gay and lesbian literature since 1979, launched a campaign earlier this year to raise its profile in the face of falling profits. Across the Atlantic, New York newspapers have reported the same phenomenon - although the boost from Christian bookshops there has skewed the trend.

But the real picture may be more complex. Although independent retailers suffered at the start of the boom in online bookselling, as buyers were seduced by Amazon's cheaper prices and doorstep delivery, customers are creeping back to the independents' wooden shelves. And not just in well-to-do areas such as Chelsea and Marylebone (home to Daunt Books). Broadway Books has set up in Hackney. Outside London, Oldfield Park Bookshop in Bath and Wenlock Books in Shropshire continue to make healthy profits.

According to Adam Powell, of Crockatt & Powell in London's Waterloo, it is the chains that are suffering rather than the smaller niche stores. Crockatt is also a former Waterstone's employee. For every branch that closes, an independent seller seems to be let loose). His statement is backed by statistics that show the market share of chains falling, while that of independents rises. Between 2003 and 2006 the chains' share of the market fell from over 38 per cent to 35 per cent, while independent bookshops increased theirs, though by a marginal 0.3 per cent.

With online sales rising by 5 per cent over the same three-year period, it is not surprising that the big names are cutting back their high-street presence. But the independents are adapting to survive that trend, too. The website brings together the stock of more than a hundred local bookshops, allowing buyers to browse and order books, but then pick them up from an independent. "Customers who are passionate about books want to browse in an actual shop and buy from people who reciprocate that passion," says Key.

Key believes the independents' success is part of a reaction against impersonal corporations. "Just as there was a backlash against Tesco in favour of small, local businesses, people want local bookshops," he says. "Waterstone's failed to fit in, which we, as residents, can."

Bookselling friends have told Key it takes just 250 faithful customers to keep a bookshop in business. He's hoping to find them in Wood Green.

This article first appeared in the 12 November 2007 issue of the New Statesman, 3 easy steps to save the planet