I recently carried out some research into independent bookshops in Scotland. This research builds on my ongoing interest into books, bookshops and authors, which emerged from working in Waterstone’s for many years and then doing a PhD on bookshops and bookselling culture. While my previous research had tended to focus on chain bookshops, I became interested in exploring the role of independents (Indies) as I feel, despite the many economic challenges they face, they seem to have a growing relevance and presence in the bookselling arena, and perhaps more importantly, are tied inextricably to our growing cultural  interest in all things artisan,  individual and unique. This is evidenced by the growth of book festivals in Scotland, and the distinctive consumption experience that so many people are now looking for.

With all this in mind, I set out to explore the role of Indies in Scotland, focusing particularly on bookshops that are geographically remote. I was interested in business practices, especially the innovative and the entrepreneurial, as well as the challenges indie bookshops regularly have to face. I also explored the role these bookshops have in their local communities – the kind of extra, add-on qualities that are so difficult to represent on a spreadsheet.

After speaking to several experienced independent booksellers, I was first of all struck by their sheer dedication. Bookselling is certainly not the industry to enter if you want to make your fortune, but the belief from booksellers that bookselling is a worthwhile, important, vital part of a community, came through loud and clear. Many booksellers were operating around subsistence level, but still relished the day ahead, immersed in books, and meeting people. This dedication led to some innovative practices in terms of bookselling, and booksellers often seemed to be the catalysts for community cultural development, such as playing a key role in getting book festivals off the ground; inviting local schools for visits;  collaborating with other local businesses to improve local decision-making for the high street, and visiting local schools (who could not visit the bookshops). A great example is Far from the Madding Crowd in Linlithgow, recently named Independent Bookshop of the Year, in the British Book Awards. Proactivity and innovation were often key attributes demonstrated by the best booksellers.

While research exists that has examined bookselling as a ‘third place’, I still think there is scope for more research in this area: just what is so special, so evocative about bookshops? It seems to encapsulate something about ourselves that we aim to be, the story unread, the knowledge untapped, that aspirational person that we can become in a bookshop. The importance of the bookshop as a ‘place’ also emerged very clearly from the research: bookshops can be a safe space to wait for mum after school; to pop into every day for locals; a welcoming refuge for the elderly (especially if a coffee shop is integral); a destination for visitors, some of whom return year on year. The fact that many of these bookshops are geographically remote often seemed to afford them some extra appeal, away from the hustle and bustle of the high street.

The booksellers highlighted several strategic areas for improvement. These focused around parity of taxes and business rates but can be summarised as a need for recognition of the huge cultural contribution that bookshops make. There is significant potential for bookshops to play a role in the community health of geographically remote areas, but also perhaps in the future of our urban areas. With so many streets in our towns and cities suffering from lack of footfall, but also homogeneity, bookshops have an important part to play in the regeneration of the high street from homogeneous to heterogeneous; from the chain to the independent; from the mass produced to the artisan.

To conclude, I found some really innovative and dedicated booksellers during this project, driven by a love for books, literacy and a conviction that bookselling is a truly worthwhile and important trade. Even before the emergence of Covid-19, high streets and retail spaces were struggling as we experience a cultural shift to online shopping. Nevertheless, there are many experiences that the online environment cannot replicate – a sense of place, smell, touch, serendipity and reality. So much of our daily lives is mediated, so we need to capitalise on and celebrate those experiences that are unique to real spaces like bookshops. As the CEBR (Centre for Economics and Business Research) found, bookshops provide a lot in terms of CSI – that’s Creative Spillover Impact, which is what happens when creative activities such as bookselling have a broader impact on wider society, for example when ideas, skills and knowledge ‘overflow’ into the wider community. There is sometimes difficulty measuring this, after all, it’s challenging to measure how much better you might feel in a bookshop in terms of a percentage. 

It would be great to see some of the concerns of booksellers being considered in terms of policy change, especially tax breaks, parity of business rates and genuine support for small businesses. This isn’t a hand-out – it’s understanding of the fact that bookshops contribute so much in terms of safe space, cultural place, time out, third place, restorative space, serendipity, social cohesion, spending time, learning, reflection. 

After all, not everything that counts can be counted…

Dr Audrey Laing a.*****@rg*.uk

Dr Audrey Laing is a Lecturer in the School of Creative and Cultural Business at Robert Gordon University.

Link to full article: https://rdcu.be/b8N7E

By Audrey Laing

Dr Audrey Laing is a Lecturer in the School of Creative and Cultural Business at Robert Gordon University.