Image for The UK’s resurgent bookshops are a plot twist nobody saw coming

The UK’s resurgent bookshops are a plot twist nobody saw coming

Despite competition from online behemoths, more and more indie bookshops are opening in the UK and Ireland. Here’s why (plus five of the best)

Despite competition from online behemoths, more and more indie bookshops are opening in the UK and Ireland. Here’s why (plus five of the best)

In a Grade II*-listed building in Manchester’s city centre, a new bookshop opened in December 2022 with an alternative mission: to combat loneliness. Run by a team of ‘bookworms’, House of Books & Friends not only stocks a wide range of titles for adults and children – it also runs a cafe and events space, including readings, book clubs and writing workshops.

“Addressing loneliness will always be our priority,” explains foundation director Laura Jones. “We’re building friendships and trusted communities where people feel a sense of connection and belonging.”

Set up as a Community Interest Company – a business that reinvests its profits into social causes rather than private shareholders – House of Books & Friends was launched by Darryl Cooke, founder of law firm gunnercooke, in response to the impact of lockdown on the local community and wider society.

Having had a successful first few months of trading, House of Books & Friends is among a new cohort of independent bookshops defying an otherwise brutal year for high street retailers.

According to the Booksellers Association, the number of indie booksellers in the UK and Ireland rose to a 10-year high in 2022 after six years of consecutive growth, with 1,072 shops now open compared to 867 in 2016. This chimes with figures from the Publishers Association, which last week revealed that 2022 was a record year for the UK publishing industry. In an era where there are more distractions than ever before, the popularity of the humble book endures. 

Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association, says that sales proved resilient during lockdowns, helping to propel subsequent new openings.

Manchester’s House of Books & Friends launched to tackle loneliness. Image: gunnercooke

“When high streets closed during the pandemic, people understood what it felt like not to have a community,” she explains. “Bookshops were more than a viable business, more than a transaction: they’ve become a measure of the health of a community.”

Halls has seen a rise in the number of purpose-driven independents, like House of Books & Friends, but not at the expense of traditional bookshops. “Bookshops have always represented safe spaces,” she explains. “This new cohort has more of an activist mentality, and they see themselves as a force for good. They are more than the sum of their parts.”

Back in Manchester, Jones says that different revenue streams are fundamental to the shop’s future and ability to compete with the likes of Amazon. “Amazon doesn’t give you a smile, it doesn’t talk to you about the book,” she says. “It doesn’t offer you a cup of coffee or ask you about your day.” 


Five new bookshops with purpose

1. The Feminist Bookshop, Brighton

Since opening in November 2019, the Feminist Bookshop has tripled its stock, launched a series of events and hosted a festival alongside Afrori books, which showcased marginalised authors. “Challenging entrenched beliefs and building bridges across communities is why we offer more than books,” says owner Ruth Wainwright. “We are unashamed to take a stand against racism, sexism and all other forms of marginalisation and oppression. This is what sets us apart from high street chains – our goal is to connect with our customers and learn together.”

Image: The Feminist Bookshop

2. Hold Fast, Leeds

A bookshop on a boat, Hold Fast is a restored coal barge moored in the city’s former commercial dock, selling both new and used books. “City living can be lonely,” says Victoria Bonner, who opened the shop last year. “We tried to create somewhere welcoming, where it’s OK not to be in a rush. The armchairs are meant to be sat on, the chess board played with.” Hold Fast’s next event will see ‘mid-life adventurer’ Jo Moseley travel from the train station to the shop on a stand-up paddleboard.

Image: @35mm_Mary

3. All Good Bookshop, London

When Tim West had to close his bookshop in north London after his business partner moved away, customers approached him with the idea of a co-operative bookstore and events space. Opened in February 2020, All Good Bookshop now has 200 ‘shareholders’. The shop holds about 1,500 books and is renowned for its buzzy events, including spoken word and comedy nights, two reading groups and a fortnightly writing workshop. It is also a meeting place for organisations like Greenpeace, Friends of the Earth and Extinction Rebellion.

Image: All Good Bookshop

4. FOLDE, Dorset

Co-founder Karen Brazier joined 3,000 walkers earlier this year to protest the loss of wild camping rights on Dartmoor. Together with Amber Harrison, the duo cherish the power of nature, which is the beating heart of their Shaftesbury bookshop, which aims to bring the community together through nature writing and the outdoors. The Shaftesbury Book Festival’s theme is nature, and FOLDE (named after the Old English word for land) holds events with local authors, such as foraging expeditions with John Wright of River Cottage. “It’s not just about books – although there is some wonderful nature writing – but about getting out there,” says Harrison.

Image: FOLDE

5. Kemps Books, Malton

“Our book clubs are flying,” says Liz Kemp, who expanded in October 2020 from a gift shop selling books to a dedicated bookstore. Popular events include Cooking the Books, a regular collaboration with the local cookery school; craft nights and talks. When more space is needed, Kemp partners with the local theatre. “We aim to be a community and destination, not just for book lovers but a place people can feel part of, where they can come for a chat.”

Image: Olivia Brabbs Photography
Main image: House of Books & Friends

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