Hidden Bookshelf 4: Interview with Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year Nominees

Hidden Bookshelf 4: Interview with Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year Nominees

If you’re anything like me (book-obsessed) then you’ll know what time of year it is. We’re drawing close to the Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year Award at the British Book Awards, with the shortlisted shops chosen. Obviously, the past year has been very different from usual, for all of us but especially for bookshops! Doors have been closed, with the only real options being click and collect, or online orders. To find out more, I wanted to get in touch with some of my favourite shortlisted bookshops, asking what they had been up to over the past year and how it had worked.

One of my favourite shortlisted bookshops in London is the famous Gay is the Word (@gaysthewordbookshop), which specialises in queer fiction and non-fiction (and typically hosts some great events!)

How have you found that the pandemic has affected the book market in the past year? Have people been buying more books? And how have you been marketing despite everything going on?

Throughout the recent months, we’ve been blown away by the response to our brand new online shop, which launched in the autumn just before the second lockdown. We’ve had over 2,000 orders in three months and have really enjoyed expanding the range of books we are able to offer online. It’s also been a joy to see people posting photos and videos of receiving their orders, which are sent wrapped with a handwritten postcard. There will be a few virtual book launches taking place in March, and we are very much looking forward to seeing folks when we re-open our doors later this spring!

Which of your books is a must-read? Tell us about it!

A few of the books we have been excited about this year have been:

Love Letters: Virginia Woolf & Vita Sackville-West

Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters

Last Night at the Telegraph Club by Malinda Lo (out on 18th March!)

What’s been your main bestsellers so far this year?

After the Booker Prize Shortlist announcement, we barely managed to keep Real Life by Brandon Taylor and Shuggie Bain by Douglas Stuart on the bookshelves! It was wonderful.

Another bookshop which I was really keen to interview is the well-known Mr B’s Emporium (@mrbsemporium) in Bath. As well as being a stunning bookshop (their toilets are illustrated by Chris Riddell!) they are the go-to place if you’re looking for any kind of recommendation. On top of selling books normally, they run an amazing subscription service, perfect for a gift or just for yourself!

How have you found that the pandemic has affected the book market in the past year? Have people been buying more books? And have any genres become more popular than others?

We have been very fortunate from the start to have entered the pandemic with a fully-fledged website where our customers have been able to place orders, see what we’re reading, and ask for recommendations. Whilst we experienced some teething problems with our supply chains early on and continue to see publication dates pushed back (sometimes more than once), books are a unique and endlessly varied form of entertainment, and this is something people need more than ever right now. We are also seeing an influx of recommendation requests and reading subscription purchases as more people are attempting to resurrect old reading habits or start a new one – which is lovely. I do think people are less eager to read darker/unhappier subjects right now, so we have been working on lists of uplifting books to see people through the winter and the remains of (what I hope) is the last lockdown.  

How have you been marketing to sell despite everything going on?

From the get-go, we’ve been focused on coming up with new and exciting projects to keep things interesting for us and for our customers. Unfortunately, we have had to put a pause on selling our Reading Spas whilst the shop is closed, and whilst we reschedule the bookings that sadly couldn’t take place last year. As a result, we have been highlighting our Reading Subscriptions service, which involves our booksellers, or ‘bibliotherapists’, personally selecting books for subscribers based on their reading tastes. It’s the closest you can get to the classic Mr B’s ‘opinionated bookselling’ from the safety of your own home, not to mention each monthly book comes wrapped in our beautifully designed biodegradable packaging.

We are also taking advantage of this time to focus on special projects, such as our upcoming ‘legacy’ series on the Mr B’s podcast, filling our Instagram page with new written and video book reviews, and writing serial articles such as Rhian’s ‘Rainbow Roundup’, Callum’s ‘A View From the Church Hill’, and Tom Mooney’s seminal ‘Reading Pile’. We are lucky enough to have Nic (the Mr B) as our boss, as he believes in and relies on our passion for all things books, to push some of our more idiosyncratic ventures. Our newest project, consisting of collectable items designed by some of our most artistically inclined booksellers, will be available soon!

Which of your books is a must-read? Tell us about it!

There is a small (and very avid) fanbase of us who have read and adored Michael Christie’s newly paper-backed novel, Greenwood. A masterful multigenerational saga spanning from the 1930s into the near future, this book is impossibly plotty and character-rich, with a delicate complexity reminiscent of Steinbeck’s East of Eden. Presenting a strong environmental message alongside classic themes of greed, legacy, and poverty, it is sure to become a Mr B’s classic.

What’s been your bestseller so far this year?

After paper-backing on the cusp of lockdown number one last year, our bestseller was and continues to be The Offing by Benjamin Myers. A classic example of a happy accident, we already loved Myers for his dark gritty novels such as The Gallows Pole, and then along came The Offing! A warm hopeful novel that follows an unlikely friendship in a post-war seaside village, it’s the perfect antidote to the pandemic blues.

My final interview was with the lovely Five Leaves (@fiveleavesbooks), the stunning Nottingham based independent bookshop that also publishes its own works! Five Leaves has just secured funding from the Arts Council to run several series of events – on women and art, on autism, on Irish writing, international writing, diverse children’s books – all subjects close to the shop’s heart.

How have you found that the pandemic has affected the book market in the past year? Have any genres become more popular than others?

With the various lockdowns, it’s been hard to see how the pandemic has affected the book market but I think we are selling more books that people know about rather than the wider range we would sell from browsing. In terms of genres, more fiction, and a lot less poetry, politics, and environmental material. Also, far more Black Lives Matters related books.

Which of your books is a must-read? Tell us about it!

Green Unpleasant Land. This is a book the Daily Mail really hates because it shows the linkage between big country houses and slavery. I don’t know if they hate it because they just don’t want people to know the history or because they think the linkage is fine, they just don’t want it criticised! Also, the book is by Peepal Tree Press, the publisher of Mermaid of Black Conch, the Costa winner. Which is also a must-read.

What’s been your bestseller so far this year?

Our bestselling national book so far is On This Day She, edited by three women (two of whom we know), giving a story of a day of women who did something important and are well known or quite unknown but should be better known. Our bestselling local book – by far our best seller – is published by us, St Ann’s: The End of an Era, a photographic book of a major working-class district of our city that was knocked down at the end of the 1960s. These recently discovered photographs were of its last days and it seems everyone who lived there is buying a copy!

Have any of you visited these bookshops? Where else would you like to have been nominated? Let us know in the comments!

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