Hidden Bookshelf 1: How Can I Support Independent Bookshops?

Hidden Bookshelf 1: How Can I Support Independent Bookshops?

Hi everyone! My name’s Emily, and I’m the latest columnist for Feather Pen Blog. Ever since I was younger I’ve always loved visiting independent bookshops for my latest reads, a hobby which has become even more important with this year’s pandemic!

With everything going on, it can feel hard to know what to do – we all want to support independent businesses, but with companies like Amazon surrounding us, it can feel hard to know how. Luckily for you, I’ve compiled the ultimate guide to supporting your local bookshops this Christmas. To do this I consulted booksellers Paddy and Alexia, respectively Word on the Water and Back to Books. I wanted their opinion on the lockdown and the best ways to help, along with any positivity and book recommendations they can bring to the table.

My first interview was with Paddy at Word on the Water (@word_on_the_water). Word on the Water is truly a one-of-a-kind bookshop. A beautiful barge on Regent’s Canal which acts as a floating bookshop, the business plan is “look after each other” and the motto is “Please your mind and mind your head”. With this in mind, I asked a few questions about the impacts of coronavirus this year. Word on the Water is the ultimate bookshop, and if any of you are in London, it’s a must-see! They now have both an online shop with a book prescription service, so make the most of their choice of books!

  1. First of all, how’s this year been for you? Has there been any difference between first and second lockdown?

“It’s been a year that has tugged at our mooring lines, and rocked our boat almost to the point of capsizing us – closures, hardship and personal loss all due to this dreadful virus – but it has revealed our little project to be – like North Sea lifeboats – self-righting. Thanks to grants aid, the support of our dauntless followers, and the indomitable friendships that hold our little collective together, we have sailed out of the other side still somehow buoyant. Our online shop has helped us bridge the weeks and months when the shop had to be closed, and having that up and running has made this second lockdown slightly less unsettling than the first.”

2. Obviously shops have had to close, how have you been selling books despite this?

“The first lockdown sent me up the River Stort on my own boat to hunker down in a forest and create our online shop, and that has enabled us to offer home delivery anywhere in the world and let us provide a click and collect service so that people can still come down to the London book barge to collect their books in person. We also now offer 6-month book prescriptions, where we curate a book a month to customers based on a description they give us of books they have loved before, and this is proving to be quite popular as gifts for people to send each other.”

3. What would be your top piece of advice for anybody hoping to support their local independents this Christmas? How can we help?

“The absolute best way to support an independent bookshop is to buy books directly from them – be it online or in person. Most of us have created online options now – just Google your local shop online. Be suspicious of all other claims by other businesses to be supporting bookshops, if you would like to help, buy direct from us.”

4. This year has been slightly depressing, to say the least – do you have any positive news? (This can be business-minded, personal, or even something happy that you’ve seen on the news/read about!)

“The positive news is that people seem to be reading more than ever, sales of real books are up year on year and these enforced periods of isolation have given countless people the opportunity to rediscover the immersion of reading, losing themselves in novels or taking deep dives into non-fiction. It’s been a year in which the reliability of information has been at the forefront of people’s minds, and the reliability, thoroughness and calm intelligence of well-researched and sourced books have given them a real caché. The year has also given Word on the Water the chance to dream up our future directions, which – the moment these vaccines allow everyone’s wings to unfurl again – include a version of the shop comprising a performance stage, bookshop and refreshment stall that will travel the music festivals each summer, a pop-up that we can take to Theatre foyers, literature festivals etc. and a second barge next door to the shop with a venue for book launches and talks, a coffee shop and complimentary therapy space.”

5. What are your top reads this month?

“I’m just finishing Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, which is a gripping tale of one woman’s fierce, solitary fight for survival in the marshlands of North Carolina in the 1950s. It’s just fab, and I recommend it to anyone, it’s a thriller, a meditation on the natural world, a courtroom drama and transports the reader to a very different life and the world from their own. Also, it’s not new, but The Body Keeps the Score by Bessel van der Kolk is just the most thorough and insightful update in current breakthroughs in our understanding and treatment of traumatic stress.”

Next, I interviewed Alexia Pepper de Caires, founder and owner of Back to Books UK. Back to Books is an independent bookshop for Birmingham, focusing on representing diverse voices and sharing different stories. Although Alexia doesn’t have a physical bookshop, in non-lockdown times she runs pop-up events and is always available to buy from online. Her website is still in the making, but you can order from her on Instagram (@backtobooksbrum) and Twitter (@BacktoBooksBrum), where you can either get single books or a bespoke book list – the perfect gift for family and friends! This year, Alexia has
got a dog, which has been great for both her recovery and as a bookselling companion.

1. First of all, how has this year been for you? Has there been any difference between first and second lockdown?

“While the pandemic has been tough on us all, last year I was suddenly diagnosed with and treated for cancer, so for me personally it has been a much better one! It was this challenge which led me to bookselling, and I was glad to have developed my practice by the time we navigated into a new world in March. The second lockdown has a different energy to it, as we’re more used to the limitations and have settled into alternative ways of working a little more. I’ve continued to offer home delivery since April and noticed a small increase in people wanting books during this time. The increase in March & April was more intense, and during June books on race and racism became very in demand.”

2. Obviously shops have had to close, how have you been selling books despite this? How does being a popup/ online shop differ from other bookshops – do you think you’ve been impacted differently?

“I’ve been able to adapt more quickly being a pop-up & online bookseller, so quickly changed my plan from regular pop-ups in community markets and local cafes to offering local deliveries and posting out a lot more books than before. Over Easter, I sold chocolate bars along with books so that people could get delicious and interesting presents safely to their loved ones. I’ve also been able to secure funding from a foundation that supports social entrepreneurs this year, helping us to sustain our work during this crisis. With this, I’ve invested in a small working space that acts as storage, operations, and once restrictions are lifted, a small bookshop for people to come and browse in. The opportunities to creatively explore different modes of working have been incredible this year, with a lot of support and solidarity.”

3. What would be your top piece of advice for anybody hoping to support their local independents this Christmas? How can we help?

“There are lots of ways of digitally and financially supporting independents, and we are especially reliant on social media traction to ensure as many people as possible see us. As Instagram has changed its algorithms once again, it’s more vital than ever to like, comment and re-post your favourite indies’ social media work in order to help us get our message out. Other ways are to make your own present lists from indies and share with your present-givers, take part in online indie markets and when you buy lovely things to share on your own social media where possible. These things make a huge difference to people’s ability to trust in us and understand what we do.”

4. This year has been slightly depressing, to say the least – do you have any positive news? (This can be business-minded, personal, or even something happy that you’ve seen on the news/read about!

“My own wellbeing, in spite of a global pandemic, is much better than last year and my business has grown in ways that I could not have imagined this time last year! For disabled people, in particular, access to events has been much better through online platforms, hearing from authors and book festivals has reduced in price or been freely available and possible from home, a huge boost for many. We need to remember that we already had hugely entrenched social inequalities, which have only been made more visible and more aggressive by the pandemic. I’ve also enjoyed my dog walks much more, in all weathers, as a chance to get outdoors and clear my head.”

5. What are your top reads this month?

“Although I love and sell books, my personal journey with reading has changed since becoming ill and having treatment – which impacted on my ability to focus, have the energy to imagine and handle complex information – my reading ability has been seriously reduced. I’ve trusted it to return in time and small books are really helping. I’ve just read Beyond the Gender Binary by Alok Vaid-Menon and am slowly making my way through So Hormonal which I wrote an essay in, to discover the other 35 amazing stories collected by the independent publisher Monstrous Regiment. When my reading expands fully, I can’t wait to explore Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo.”

So there you have it. Although they’re not as widely publicised as Amazon, your local independent bookshop is bound to have plenty of ways that you can get books. And just remember, your purchase means more to them than it could ever mean to huge corporations. Here’s a final list of all you can do to shop small and support local.

  1. Check locally. Chances are, your local bookshop is either open for online orders and/or click and collect. Mine definitely is (Nomad Books in Fulham), and I’ve definitely been making the most of it! I spoke to another of my locals, South Kensington Books (they offer an amazing library curation service as well as an online shop via email and telephone), who put it well: “Indies are ready to help with any enquiries and staff are very skilled at finding the right thing, my advice is simply to get in touch with you local store, by phone, by email, in person if you can – it might take a bit more effort than clicking a button on a screen – but it is usually a more rewarding experience and it will help that bookshop keep going”.
  2. If you’re struggling, buy from Bookshop.org, an online bookshop with a mission to support independents around the UK. For each book you buy, the money will go to small bookshops; either you can spread the profit equally, or if you want, you can ask for all of the money to go towards a certain bookshop!
  3. As a Christmas present, why not invest in a book prescription? It’s one of the most thoughtful gifts out there and will show how much you value whoever you’ve bought it for! As mentioned, Word on the Water and Back to Books offer great ones, as do Mr B’s Emporium. If you’re looking for something a little more specific, Books That Matter is a women-run independent business which offer the best feminist subscription box, with each month focusing on a different theme (see below the November box I received!)
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