Ben Cornwell visits Hastings’ independent bookshops to see how they have fared during the pandemic years.

There’s nothing quite like that feeling of stepping into a bookshop. As a child I loved to read. My first experience of a bookshop was how I imagine Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy felt exiting the wardrobe and entering the magical world of Narnia. Initially overwhelmed by what is in front of you, trying to take it all in – although I must admit the only fauns or talking lions in my local store were between the covers. Nowadays I rarely go into a store with a particular book in mind. Instead I find myself grabbing something unknown off the shelf, eagerly anticipating my next adventure. 

But in this modern age, filled with Amazon, Kindles and audiobooks, this experience is likely to become less frequent. Aren’t we all guilty from time to time of ordering online with just a click of a button and having items delivered straight to the door? But in the past couple of years online shopping is not the only problem facing independent bookstores.

Balance the Books

Hastings is lucky enough to have several brilliant independent bookshops in the area, from Bookbuster and Printed Matter in Queen’s Road to The Hastings Bookshop in Trinity Street and the intriguingly diverse Hare and Hawthorn on George Street. Bookbuster’s name – and sign – was inspired by by its former occupants: Blockbuster video. As you enter the shop, it looks as if it’s about to burst with the huge stacks of books that owner Tim Barton manages to squeeze into the relatively small area. Tim is hoping to reach the store’s tenth anniversary later this year but admits that it has been tough financially and that he has only barely scraped through, with the help of a few Covid support grants. In the run-up to Christmas, he began to really feel the effect of the pandemic. His online sales were the same in November and December as they were in September – when they should have been four times higher. 

Brexit was another major factor for the decline in online orders: “I noticed certain changes in the market from January. A third of my online sales were from Europe but I have had only one order since January from outside this country,” he says. “Because the UK doesn’t have a customs union deal, each European country can set their own tariffs and VAT and import charges, so most people trying to order books and records from the UK will potentially be paying double, depending on which country they are in. It has kicked a huge hole in the internet sales.” 

Conscientious Consumerism

Many people had much more time to read during the lockdowns and needed books, but that didn’t mean that local booksellers were in profit, since their stores had to shut due to the government’s restrictions. Lee Humphries, owner of the Printed Matter Bookshop told HIP that it was difficult to make any money during the pandemic, as he could only accept mail orders on his website. He did also offer door-to-door deliveries to customers in the local area whilst the shop was shut, something many bookstores across the UK adopted. Lee says he had always wanted to open a shop since he was in his 20s, but then it wasn’t financially viable – he had to wait until 2017 before he finally fulfilled his goal.

The pandemic resulted in some people adopting a sense of conscientious consumerism, choosing to buy from their local businesses rather than the massive chains and high street brands. Lee says some locals are now more inclined to buy from his store rather than sites like Amazon: “There are some people that come in and say that they think Amazon and Waterstones have enough money, so I’d rather just give it to you,” he says. “They will then send me links from Amazon and ask if I can order certain books in for them.”

But while some stores struggled as a result of the pandemic, others saw it as an opportunity. Charlie Crabb has been a bookseller since he was 15, and many of his family ply their trade in the book industry – his mum and dad were both booksellers in London before moving into publishing, whilst his uncle is also a publisher. But it wasn’t until the pandemic hit and he was furloughed that he thought about opening The Hastings Bookshop in Trinity Street.

“I was working at Waterstones when everything was shut and everyone was put on furlough. I started looking at smaller independent book shops to see what they were doing and how they were able to keep on going,” he says.

“I felt that if there was ever a time to open up a book shop, it was now, and although there were some good independent bookshops in Hastings already, it seemed like there was an opening for a business in this particular part of town.”

Competing with the Big Hitters

Until the 1990s the Net Book Agreement ensured a fixed price agreement between publishers and booksellers with no discounting allowed. Terry Maher, head of the bookshop chain Dillons, was one of the people calling for the agreement to be torn up. In 1997 the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) declared the agreement illegal. Maher had succeeded although his business didn’t – Dillons was subsumed by Waterstones shortly after. 

The dissolution of the agreement made it vastly harder for independent booksellers across the country to compete with larger high street chains like WH Smith and Waterstones. Publishers gave the large booksellers massive discounts for volume, enabling them to significantly undercut the independents. Many saw it as the beginning of the end of smaller local bookshops. It seemed they were right. Between 1995 and 2016 the number of member stores in the Booksellers Association dropped from 1,894 to 867. But not all hope is lost – over the last five years
there has been a gradual rise in independent bookstores with numbers hitting 1,027 in 2021. 

Charlie Crabb believes this rise is in some ways comparable to the popularity of vinyl in recent years. “The same thing happened with records. Records were dead supposedly. Why would you want to go buy a record for £20 when you could buy it for £2 or £3 online or even stream it for free? But it is because people want to go into that physical space and browse and hold this object.” he says. “I think it’s amazing how many bookshops are opening now and that there are so many in Hastings which can all offer something different.”

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