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Independent bookstores in the UK have shown a revival in the face of the worst retail figures for the last 25 years. The number of independents has risen from 883 at the end of 2018 to 890 at the end of 2019, according to figures from the Booksellers Association (BA). The trend continues a pattern from 2017 when there were 868 independent bookshops.
BA chief Meryl Halls described the news as a “testament to the creativity, passion and hard work of our booksellers, who continue to excel in the face of challenging circumstances, particularly those wider high street challenges which so often see bookshops outperforming their high street peers. It’s enhanced by the news of Waterstones store openings during 2019; bolstering the bookselling community more widely”.
She continued: “I think it looks like a sector in resurgence. The narrative about bookshops is that they are bucking the trend and that it’s a nourishing and rewarding career choice, albeit hard work, so that is part of it. The fact that bookshops have survived the Amazon firestorm is now a publicly accepted fact and that gives confidence to the sector, and to the consumers who use it.
“Shop local movements are definitely resurgent too. Community in a time of strife is of outsize importance, and with all the talk of healing and collaboration, that makes it more likely that people will cleave together, and want to reproduce something they may have thought they’d lost. High street groupings are getting better at promoting the benefits of shopping local and the media coverage of high-profile closures reinforces what’s at stake. Everyone shops online but nobody wants to live somewhere where there are no shops.”
The story is the same in the US too. The American Booksellers Association had 1,651 stores in 2009 and records some 2,500 today.
The wider retail picture in the UK is tough with the British Retail Consortium (BRC) reporting total sales down 0.1%, marking the first annual sales decline since 1995. Sales in November and December were particularly weak, falling 0.9%, the BRC said.
Helen Dickinson, chief executive of the BRC, commented: “Twice the UK faced the prospect of a no-deal Brexit, as well as political instability that concluded in a December general election – further weakening demand for the festive period. Retailers also faced challenges as consumers became both more cautious and more conscientious as they went about their Christmas shopping.”
The book industry – and particularly the independent sector – is taking heart from these latest membership figures and is hopeful that the upward trend continues.