We’re revisiting some of our favourite independent bookshops, to hear how the past few years have been since our last interview.
We originally spoke to Ross, from Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham, in 2015. Here, he tells us more about the changes they’ve seen as the bookshop nears a decade of trading:
Looking round the bookshop, in our ninth year, it might be hard for a casual observer to notice much change in what they see, but changes have been legion. There are new sections, environment and countryside and fantasy for example. This last reflects changes in our customer profile – since reopening after the Covid close downs, a whole new range of customers has started coming to the shop, young, teenage-young, women. One of their favourite areas is fantasy, where they explore other, better worlds, mostly with strong female characters. We’ve also started labelling LGBT+ fiction, rather than integrating it within general fiction, with so much new work aimed at a younger, more confident LGBT+ community.
Five Leaves has always had a feminist section and a Black writing/Black lives section, but when we started we struggled to fill a shelf with feminist books (most of the books then were older, more expensive women’s studies academic titles) and our Black section was really Black American. That has changed drastically, with so many new titles by new Black British writers and a new generation of feminist writers. Though Fanon and Stuart Hall and bell hooks are still up there!
Books have got better – in cover design, pricing points, different formats. Prices have barely risen, compared to inflation, though the presence of £20 literary hardback novels aimed at the discount market is frustrating. Publishers are more inventive, quicker on their feet. A simple example is when Trump rose, Penguin mined their backlist to bring out a whole pile of dystopian novels! Black Lives is having an impact in the long march through the institutions. The trade accepts that it has not been the most obvious option for creative Black people but we are starting to see more Black people in positions of power in publishing, and moving into ownership of High Street bookshops. Not many, a trickle, but the Booksellers Association is doing what it can with the New Futures project. Prediction – in nine years time there will be many more Black owned bookshops, a more diverse ownership range generally.
We find it easy to source diverse children’s books, something we have always done, but now our children’s section is exploding out of its section with many, perhaps most, of our books for young children featuring Black and Asian or LGBT+ images. It’s shocking to think that when I came into the booktrade in 1979/80 there were next to no paperbacks from mainstream publishers with a Black child on the cover.
Publishers have been increasingly supportive of the shop on discount and with offers of authors. As I write Blackwells is following Foyles into Waterstones. Aside from the very popular market we now have a tripartite structure – Amazon (boo, hiss), Waterstones and an expanding indie sector. Publishers need us!
Post-Covid (though I wish I could say that really was the case) and during Covid books became more 0essential to people and we find that we are selling more hardbacks by far than we did two years ago. Some of this is due to people reviewing our small part of the world during the pandemic and supporting indies more, but also the hardback range on offer to us seems to be more attuned to where our customers are, both in fiction and non-fiction. David Graeber’s Dawn of Everything, for example, has sold well despite its £30 retail price.
Our own publishing is recovering after two torrid years. People were buying – but they tended to buy the books they had heard of or were reviewed, so with shops and other outlets closed, and events not happening, our titles struggled to make themselves known. Lots of small publishers found themselves in this position.
The other major change is that we now live in a mixed economy. Rather than just buying over the counter, we sell a lot through our webshop, built during the Covid period. During the closed periods the webshop was a lifeline, as our bookshop turned into a mini-warehouse. We still bought in new titles. One member of staff said that however long we would be closed for, the shop had to look like it could open the next day. So every day he was in he changed the face out titles around, kept the display tables changing and all packing was done in the back room. The only people who would see the displays, check out the faceouts were us – but it kept us thinking about our stock and was a huge boost to morale!
Five Leaves has always had a big events programme. Prior to Covid this was running at 100 events a year, and we had started a “Night School”. We moved a lot of this online during the last two years, but we started a live programme in April. Initially small until we regain confidence and we and our customers feel safe. We’ve never trusted the Government – who would? – so we have made our own decisions on Covid. As we write we still tell customers we prefer them to wear masks, offering them for free. From the big re-opening in April until Christmas we gave out 1000 masks, and introduced a super ventilation system. We’ve had to learn to be scientists, to be computer technicians, to operate Zoom events… to have every conceivable style of cardboard packing in the back office. And to keep in touch with our customers all the time.
Five Leaves is open Monday-Saturday, 10-5.30, Sundays 12-4
You can order books via their new online shop at fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk/shop/ or via email or by calling us.
You can follow them on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram. Email if you want to join their mailing list.
Visit Five Leaves on YouTube at www.youtube.com/c/FiveLeavesBookshopNottingham/videos
Five Leaves Bookshop
14a Long Row