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21 January 2020
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 Book Shops > Rumours

Rumours of the secondhand bookshop's death are greatly exaggerated

A growing number of stories have appeared in the media in recent months claiming that the UK’s secondhand bookshops are in a state of terminal decline. The one thing they all share in common, is the claim that the number of secondhand bookshops in the UK has fallen by half in the past three years, from 1200 to 600. This would be nothing short of a catastrophic collapse if it were true. But is it?

Anthony Barnes, writing in the Independent on October 30th, is the latest to quote these figures and he paints a bleak picture: ‘The days of whiling away an afternoon browsing through a warren of musty, book-lined walls may be a thing of the past. Second-hand bookshops, those havens for leafing through dusty, dog-eared and yellowing pages for a tome you never knew you wanted, are dying out at an unprecedented rate’.

Scary stuff, but just where does this statistic - the starting point for all these articles - come from? The source would appear to be Sheppard’s ‘Book Dealers in the British Isles’, a trade directory that has been published, in one form or another, since 1951.

In the introduction to the 2005 edition, Richard Joseph, its publisher, states: ‘In the 2001 edition of this directory, we recorded that there were 1,269 businesses trading from shops (as well as private premises). This year the number of businesses trading from shops is 620 which confirms that the trade is going through a dramatic change and traditional methods of trading are disappearing’.

An unequivocal statement, but the fact is that these figures only include shops that have submitted their details to Sheppard’s. This is a self-selecting process and as a result, does not really reflect what is happening in the country as a whole, as I hope to demonstrate.

TheBookGuide attempts to list all the secondhand and antiquarian bookshops in the UK and is committed to their promotion. The site has been running for the past five years and, as well as the shops personally visited or contacted by us, bookshop enthusiasts from all over the county help to update the entries on a continuous basis.

For some comparative figures, let’s take Gloucestershire’s bookshops as an example. Sheppard’s lists 13 shops, of which to my knowledge, one has recently closed and another is not really a bookshop. By contrast, TheBookGuide lists 32 shops, of which one is currently closed due to the owner’s death; three are charity bookshops; two are bookrooms and one is a weekly antiques market with three or more bookstalls.

This exercise can be repeated countrywide. Cornwall; Sheppard’s 10, TheBookGuide, 22. West Yorkshire; Sheppard’s 6, TheBookGuide, 16. And so on …

Counting secondhand bookshops has always been fraught with difficulty, as they tend to open and close with alarming frequency. It’s a marginal trade, populated by idiosyncratic people, who are often difficult to contact and are sometimes slow to promote themselves. However, I am absolutely confident that there are still in excess of 1,000 secondhand bookshops out there, just waiting for you to visit them.

Mike Goodenough

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