Thursday, February 12, 2009

An inexorable decline?

Figures from the UK Booksellers Association show the total number of independent bookshops declining by around 50 a year on average since 2005. In 2008, while 66 opened some 83 closed. Since 2005, the figures look like this:

2005 – 1,562
2006 – 1,483
2007 – 1,422
2009 – 1,350
(Left: Faithful friend and faithful service: Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton)

Curiously, figures from Book Marketing Limited show that between 2003 and July 2007, sales through independents grew by 2% in volume and 10% in value. The reason cited at the time was that those less efficient independents that were perhaps protected by the NBA had fallen by the wayside, leaving the well-run businesses to carve out a niche. BML has its annual Books and the Consumer Conference at the end of next month and it will be interesting to see the updated figures.

The independents v chains debate is one that frequently leads to a lively debate on the Comments section of the Bookseller’s website ( Here’s a recent comment: ‘There is of course a vast difference between (i) a local indie that serves a people and a place, is embedded there, who answers to that place - not a faceless board in London - and whose relatively modest profits largely stay in the local economy and (ii) a here today/gone tomorrow chain store branch with no real interest in the area except insofar as it contributes towards the corporate bottom line and the wealth of shareholders (who themselves have no local connection),and whose use of local business-to business services is minimal….It should otherwise be obvious that one sustains and nurtures the local community and the other takes from it as much as it can, notwithstanding the provision of local "sponsorship", events, etc when HQ decides it would be prudent PR.’

(Above: Standing proud: Main Street Trading Company in St Boswells, Scotland)

There are so many ways of looking at this. While no one likes to see indies close, surely the most important question is whether a community has a

bookshop at all, not whether that shop is an independent or not. With regard to supporting the local community, it could be argued that a chain will employ more people than an independent, thus boosting the local economy.

Equally though, chains are often less organic, less embedded in the local community because managers frequently come from elsewhere in the country, work a year or two, then move on. But that’s just the managers: many of the shop floor staff, the people who actually interact with the public, will be local. But a chain shop is unlikely to offer a delivery service to local customers: Jaffe & Neal in Chipping Norton (pictured above) used to have a Land Rover in which they ferried books to customers out in the Oxfordshire countryside.
(Left: Happy Cow Books in Holmfirth, West Yorkshire)

How low will the UK indie figures go? Sadly, more closures are surely likely before a plateau is reached. But those indies that are in the right affluent areas, in the type of secondary locations that the chains ignore, will survive. The danger may come if Waterstone’s decides to follow the old Ottakar’s policy of opening smaller branches in such locations. However, at the moment it seems keen on boosting its Net presence and expanding the use of its loyalty card.
Who knows, perhaps the UK recession will help independents as consumers forgo trips to the shopping centre and decide to shop locally. Let’s hope so, just for the sake of diversity in the retail landscape.

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