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 Book Shops > The Writing on the Wall

The Writing on the Wall

The writing may be on the wall for the UK's secondhand bookshops, but what does it actually say? Mike Goodenough, long-time bookshop owner and editor of TheBookGuide.co.uk, tries to make some sense of it.

I sometimes feel that secondhand bookshops have been 'under threat' for as long as I've owned one. Escalating rents and rates, the rise of book fairs, a decline in reading, and most recently the internet, have all, in turn, been predicted to bring about our demise. And in recent years barely a month has gone by without some journalist telling us that the game is up.

Thirty years is a long time to labour under Damocles' sword, but I'm still trading, as are a surprising number of the UK's secondhand bookshops. So, should we be lamenting some fabled golden past, or celebrating the resilience of this quirky sector of the British economy?

Despite six months of some of the most punishing trading conditions that I can remember, the evidence suggests that secondhand bookshops are generally holding their own, and in some cases, doing rather better than of late.

As editor of 'TheBookGuide' website, I maintain a database of secondhand bookshops, with entries based on information provided by both bookshop owners and their customers. Of course, presenting an up-to-date figure for the total number of secondhand bookshops in the UK is close to impossible. Understandably, bookshop owners are more inclined to announce their openings than their closures, but the collaborative nature of TheBookGuide encourages the prompt reporting of these events, and the numbers are certainly robust enough to illustrate the trend.

In 2005 I guestimated that there where at least a 1000 shops in the UK, in April 2007 our database held 1078, and in April this year we were listing 1097. Of the 2009 total, 114 are charity bookshops run by Oxfam and others. Over the past two years I have closed 74 shops and added 93 to the site. And in the first three months of 2009, 13 of the shops added where either new businesses, or shops that had closed and subsequently relocated.

This clearly shows that (even if you exclude market stalls and bookrooms), there are still well in excess of 1000 secondhand bookshops in the UK, the vast majority of which are independently owned and run. This is of course, strongly at variance with the commonly held and oft repeated view that secondhand bookshops are disappearing like snow on the water.

I know that this is of little consolation if you live in an area with no secondhand bookshops, but I would suggest that the reasons for this are more likely to do with local factors, than any overall national decline.

The two localities that have been hardest hit by closures are the centres of large towns and cities, and traditional seaside towns. Insupportable rent and rates seems to be the most common cause of closure in town and city centres, with London losing twice as many shops as anywhere else. And bookshops in seaside towns have suffered from a combination of falling visitor numbers and a decline in holiday reading.

However, if there is a nationwide factor common to shops shutting, it is that bookshop keeping has become the occupation of the rapidly aging. The 1980's bulge in bookshop numbers provides a partial explanation for this, when many early retirees saw bookshop owning as a pleasant occupation. And during the last decade in particular, younger entrants to the book trade have been much more likely to sell at fairs and on the internet, than to take on the commitment of a shop.

So, what of the future?

There's no doubt that the recession is impacting on secondhand bookshops, but not all of its effects will necessarily be negative. And during the last two recessions it was a commonly held view that secondhand booksellers were amongst the last to feel its effects, and amongst the first to recover. Recent newspaper articles, in which some larger secondhand bookshops have reported improved sales of up to 10% so far this year, are perhaps an indicator of this.

Shopping locally is increasingly popular, as is seeing and touching what you are buying, rather than relying on the vagaries of internet descriptions. At the same time, charity shops are struggling to attract donations as more people feel the need to try and turn their unwanted books into cash. And selling to bookshops could become an increasingly attractive option, compared to the time consuming uncertainty of ebaying one's own books.

All these trends should make life easier for independent secondhand bookshops that are able to take advantage of them

The recession is also likely to significantly depress rents, raising the possibility of a return to town and city centres by some secondhand bookshops. I also think that living over the shop could become a more popular option, and we are likely to see the increased reuse of old industrial and agricultural buildings as bookshops.

The internet has both transformed secondhand book buying, and created a huge new customer base. The challenge for independent secondhand bookshop owners is to exploit this by offering a customer experience not available on the net or in charity bookshops.

And as a younger generation begins to embrace downloadable text, I see the role of secondhand bookshops as a continuation of one they have always provided - to put one intimately in contact with our printed past.

Clearly there are still lots of opportunities to visit secondhand bookshops, so stop wringing your hands and lamenting our passing, prise yourself away from your computer, and get out and visit us.

Mike Goodenough
Editor 13.07.09

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