The Surprising Survival of the Bookshop

21 Jun|Tom Hodgkinson

Idler Bookstore The bookshop in Notting Hill which we ran for five years, from 2011 to 2016.

Running a bookshop is tough – we should admire those who make it work, writes Tom Hodgkinson

I was fascinated to read the news that bookshop genius James Daunt is being brought in by Barnes and Noble in the US to attempt to turn the business round. As we all know, bookshops have suffered enormously in recent years as a direct result of the double attack of savage undercutting and magical efficiency from Amazon.

James Daunt founded Daunt Books in 1990 and through patience and imagination made it a success. He was then employed by Waterstones and rescued them. Now the owner of Waterstones, a hedge fund called Elliott Management, has bought Barnes and Noble.

Of the rise of tech Daunt says: “We endured the fire and it forced us to raise our game.”

The project is massive. Waterstones has around 280 branches but B&N has 627 (around 80 of which sell the Idler magazine – thank you!).

Victoria and I attempted to create an interesting bookshop in Notting Hill from 2011 to 2016. The economics eventually defeated us but if we had been, say, twice as busy, we probably would have done OK. What we tried to do was to create a convivial space which people wanted to visit.

One good thing is that the ebook has failed to kill the real book, as once predicted. When we opened our shop, an acquaintance repeatedly stabbed my chest with his finger saying: “Books are dead!” And at the time Penguin chairman John Makinson pledged to reinvent the book by filling it with what he called “cool stuff”, like video clips of Pride and Prejudice. Thankfully his vision was way wide of the mark.

Partly for the reason that we tried and failed, I am full of admiration for anyone who makes a bookshop work, not just the chains but also the indies. They are such an important part of a community. Current successes include Chipping Norton’s Jaffé and Neale and Wood Green’s Big Green Bookshop. We’d love to hear about great bookshops around the world. Do you work in one or visit one near where you live? Let us know.


These comments were mailed to us after the above piece was sent as a newsletter. We like to publish a selection and reserve the right to edit them for clarity. Feel free to drop us a line with your views.

Here’s a marvel you should know about: the fantastic Much Ado Books: 8 West Street, Alfriston, East Sussex BN26 5UX. They have wonderful stock, including secondhand and antiquarian; lovely cards; some art/craft materials; a workshop space that accommodates a small working vintage printing-press, along with very frequent literary and otherwise bookish events, including a Readers Club. Most wondrously, they have created a book-focused social enterprise, Prospero’s Project, that supports organisations that promote a love of books. In recent time they have also been arranging the inclusion of new books as contributions at foodbanks: how bloody awesome is that?? The owners are wonderful: Cate and Nash. Check ’em out!
– Kathryn Edwards

I too am fascinated by your report that James Daunt has been employed by Barnes & Noble. The lovely bookshop which you and your wife opened was right at the end of our road and we were so sorry to see it finally close after what must have been quite a difficult trading time for you. Our friend Yuval had his first books for children launched there (which of course we attended), also some of the talks, and we very much liked your manager Julian. One of the reasons for my full sympathy is that I too worked in the book trade for 20 years at a small independent but very popular and well community supported book shop – Elgin Books – owned by my lovely friend Mary Mackintosh. It had a great following of faithful customers and is still sadly missed after being forced to close in 2000 because of the end of our lease and a HEFTY rent increase. The sale of books was beginning to make itself felt at that point and I so admire any independent which is able to continue, not to mention being SO relieved when James Daunt reclaimed Waterstones from the dreadful demise that it was in. You are right about independent bookselling being a real challenge nowadays, books obviously being the first to show the change in shopping habits, but look what is happening to the high streets around the country… I should think you were relieved to have moved out when you did.
– Nicky Hessenberg

I’d like to recommend YSTWYTH BOOKS in Aberystwyth as a prime example of bookshop survivalism; OK, Martin who runs it is a great friend, but retaining multiple dusty rooms of slow-moving second-hand stock and keeping that blissful aura of bookish undisturbed silence maintained is a service to the community not to be underestimated!
– Tim Hockin

I have two favourite bookshops: Riverbend Books in Bulimba, Brisbane, where a wonderful selection of curated new releases, well-chosen older titles, good quality children’s books and fine art books within the shop are complemented by the excellent cafe on the large deck (it’s warm in Brisbane); and The Paperback Bookshop in Bourke St, Melbourne. It is a tiny treasure room of books you feel immediately compelled to read, on subjects you have always wanted to know more about. It has been there since the 1960s.
– Nicole Murray

I thought I should give a shout out to Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston. It’s a fantastic independent bookshop which holds interesting evening events, stocks a great selection of emerging and established writers, has helpful and lovely staff who make great reading recommendations and to top it off does fantastic coffee! Earlier this year they also hosted a series of free writing workshops at the shop for the local community – aimed at under-represented communities and people who might face barriers to getting published. I feel very lucky to live in walking distance of this shop!
– Jo Dungate

Regarding noteworthy independent bookstores, I nominate [words], a bookstore in Maplewood, New Jersey. This bookstore has played a huge role in making the town center vibrant. More importantly, in my view, the store has been a vehicle for training over 100 local people with autism with work skills. The direction and greater sense of self-worth engendered through this program has changed many lives for the better.
– John Lobrano

Charlie Byrne’s bookshop in Galway is the best bookshop in Ireland. They have just about any book to do with Irish literature or history and so much more.
– Robert Soden

I love tales of bookshop survival and collect them. Standouts are Larry McMurtry’s Books: A Memoir and Anne Patchett’s The Bookshop Strikes Back, as both authors’ backed books by becoming bookshop owners themselves. Other great reads include Julian Barnes’ A Life With Books on reading and the Alan Bennett anthology project The Library Book on libraries. Anyway, one of Sydney’s best bookshops is The Potts Point Bookshop. The space is always clean and tidy, the bookshop owner Anna Low is a reader, very involved with the local publishing industry, good at having books in store that suit her market (discerning and clever), and she employs staff who are readers and who love books so there’s always someone to guide and recommend. The other Sydney bookshops I’ve loved in my time have all gone now.
– Barbara Sweeney

In the Scottish Borders we are so lucky to have The Main Street Bookshop in At Boswells, the Borders Book Festival and the Boswell Book Festival. Books are still alive and well!
– Margaret Eliott

When I was younger, I worked at a number of bookstores, including one that was called Prospero Books (it still exists, though it was bought by Coles many years ago; it’s now owned by Indigo). While I was at university studying for my degree in Religious Studies, I worked part-time at Coles. I’ve always loved being surrounded by books. I’ve always needed books. These days, I’m also writing them. When I read this latest email of yours, and these words in particular, “One good thing is that the ebook has failed to kill the real book, as once predicted,” I did a little dance. I cannot for the life of me understand the appeal of ebooks. How can an ebook compare to the beauty of a real book, the fragrance of the paper, its smoothness beneath one’s fingers, or to the joy of holding it, of displaying it on a shelf? A real book, with little notes sometimes hidden amongst its pages, is made for real humans. Here’s to idling! And listening to Mozart on vinyl records (as I’m doing right now).
– Professor Logospilgrim

Here in Dunedin, New Zealand, we have the wonderful independently owned University Bookshop. Such a warm & welcoming place to browse & peruse – mostly books but also tasteful quirky gifts & stationery. In addition, with the demise of our New Zealand Post branches, they have taken on that service & set up a counter for simple postal services. I’m just an occasional shopper there but always come away feeling uplifted in some small way.
– Maria Tod

Generally speaking Southern California is not enamoured with the written word – judging by the paucity of bookshops. However in Laguna Beach during the 1990s and early 2000s there was a real gem of a book shop called Fahrenheit 451. (What an inspired the name for a book shop.) Complete with comfortable sofas scattered amongst its well filled shelves it encouraged idling and the enjoyment of literature. Unfortunately it is now closed. I imagine they were also defeated by the economics. What a pity and a loss for Laguna Beach.
– George Smith

I’d like to add the Aldeburgh Bookshop and The Open Book, Richmond, to your list.
– Ray Martin

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