AS with so many treasured institutions, the local bookshop has taken a hit from this century’s technological progress.
The number of independent stores in the country has almost halved in the past 11 years. In 2005 there were 1,535 such bookshops, but in 2017 there are just 867, according to the Booksellers Association.
They have faced a multitude of pressures during that period. Fierce competition and undercutting from online retailers, the rise of e-books and the growth of alternative entertainment forms, such as gaming and Netflix, have all contributed to a strain on a shop’s viability.
But three local booksellers, Mr Books, Hall’s and the Aviation Bookshop, are bucking the trend – all in their own way.
Phil Holden, who took over Mr Books in Tonbridge High Street in July, feels the key to an independent’s success is making it more than just a shop.
“I want it to be a meeting place in the town,” he told the Times. “I think bookshops have to change. It’s not just about selling the books, it is about being a source of information for people and providing creative resources. It’s not the same as a high street clothing store.
“We are looking at doing author events, perhaps space for a local writers or poetry group.
“I like the idea of reading the Just William books, if parents wanted to bring their children along.
“We could have a very simple coffee and tea service, perhaps a glass of wine in the evening.”
If the shop can cement its place in people’s social calendars, then it can battle against the tide of closures seen nationwide.
Some of the signs are looking good. This year, physical sales of books were up by 8 per cent on last year to £3billion – the highest level since 2012, while e-book sales were down 3 per cent.
The figures suggest that people are realising the value of owning a physical copy of their favourite literature – in a similar vein to the explosion of vinyl purchasing which saw the format overtake digital downloads last December in terms of money spent.
“I feel like it’s bouncing back. There has been a regrowth in book buying as people turn away from e-readers,” said Mr Holden.
“There are not many places in the world where you can pick up something for a pound or two that could change the way you think or the way you live.”
Opened in 1898, the Chapel Place bookshop will be celebrating its 120th anniversary next year and employee Ben Wilson says ‘business is very good’.
“People really like bookshops,” he explained. “There’s something special about them. Throughout the years business has really been steady. E-books haven’t really affected us.”
Behind the physical shop, which focuses on second-hand books, is an online business (www.harringtonbooks.co.uk) that buys and sells rare and antiquarian books, specialising in modern first editions. One of their most valuable items is an inscribed first edition of Ian Fleming’s third Bond novel – Moonraker. Mr Wilson said he expected it to sell for up to £50,000.
ν Hall’s is also in charge of organising the quarterly Tunbridge Wells Book Fair. Held this Saturday [September 2] in King Charles the Martyr Church Hall, it is open from 9am to 3pm. You can browse thousands of second-hand and collectable books in all fields from around 15 experienced booksellers.
The Aviation Bookshop
Shop Manager Justin Sawyer has spent 15 years in the town, but it is aviation’s international appeal that made last year his ‘best ever’, at the Vale Road shop.
“And if this year continues, it will be even better. We are very specialist, it is so, so niche – we are the only one [aviation specialist bookshop] in the country.
“We also have the advantage of Kent. We have a lot of big air shows nearby, and our distance from Calais means we get a lot of European customers,” he said, just as a Dutch shopper walked into the store.
Due to their specialism and appearance at air shows most weekends, the shop has a presence throughout the aviation enthusiast community, and the weak pound has meant their European and US online sales have taken an upturn.