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Independent Bookshops Show Revival in UK and US

by | Dec 20, 2017 | Articles and Reports, News

The revival of independent bookstores that has been a feature in the US – right in the face of Amazon’s growing might – now appears to be happening in the UK. Figures released by the UK Booksellers Association show that the number of independent bookstores in the UK has increased for the first time in more than ten years.

The trade body’s chief executive Tim Godfray said there had been a “slight increase” in its independent bookshop membership figures in 2017 to date. In an end-of-year letter to publishers, he remarked: “The arrest in the decline of independent bookshops seems to have happened; the next year or so will tell us whether it is reversing.”

In 2005 there were 1,535 independent bookstores in the UK, but that figure dropped to 867 in 2016. Since then, however, the decline seems to have halted and indies have mounted something of a turnaround. Paradoxically, some aspects of their revival can be attributed to Amazon – or rather, to meeting the challenge of Amazon.

Nic Bottomley, who runs Mr B’s Emporium of Reading Delights in the UK city of Bath, said publishers had realised the importance of bricks and mortar retailers in giving their books visibility and as a result, are prepared to offer better terms to ensure their survival. He also believes that Amazon had made booksellers think carefully about what their presence means on the high street. “Bookshops have becomes more and more creative – they hold more interesting events, make better partnerships in their communities and have essentially become more professional,” he said. “They have sharpened their act because they have had to when faced with competition from Amazon, rising business rates and huge economic uncertainty, for example with Brexit.”

In the US, something similar has happened. Between 1995 and 2000, the number of independent bookstores in the States fell by 43%, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA). But between 2009 and 2015, the association reported a 35% growth, with numbers rising from 1,651 to 2,227.

This revival has recently been the subject of an academic study by a professor at Harvard Business School. Ryan Raffaelli, who works in the Organisational Behaviour Unit, wanted to know how it had happened and his research led him to three conclusions: ‘community,’ ‘curation’ and ‘convening.’

Independent booksellers were among the first to champion ‘localism’- the idea of being a community hub. They also became very good at curation, carefully selecting stock and letting the chains slug it out with Amazon on front list. Finally, indie booksellers became masters at convening events, allowing all manner of occasions to bring people into their shop: readings, signings, debates and even birthday parties. These three elements, he believes, have been instrumental in the revival of independent bookshops,

Perhaps then, just perhaps, it is possible for both Amazon and independents to co-exist happily side by side.

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