The Rise – and Rise – of the Community Bookshop
Community bookshops have been an anchor point, a consistent boon I’ve sought out in whichever place I’m living in at the time. Across all of them, these places sold more than just paperbacks and hardbacks. They shared communities, interests, recommendations.
Independent and community bookstores make you feel welcomed, protected. You’re instantly connected to others.
By Becca from Queer Lit
Saturday mornings as a kid were always spent in a bookshop. Dad ran errands, I tagged along, and then afterwards as a treat it was on to collect a new read. Tucked away, between shoe and card shops respectively, the shop was dark green on the outside and open brick walled on the inside. It had wiry green carpets, paled and thready beside the shelves with footfall. There were hand-drawn cards in the window advertising local authors signings and upcoming releases. It had a delicious smell; new paper and wafts of fresh coffee from the steaming mug next to the cashier. It was manned always by one man; the same man, every time.
I’d likely devour a good few chapters of my new book on the walk home (with many scraped knees acquired as proof) and then fall asleep that night with the final few pages pressed against my face. It was routine, comforting; I knew what Saturdays were about.
We moved away when I was about fourteen, so just to check in on my nostalgia, I called my dad whilst writing to ask him what he remembered.
“Jeez. No idea what that place was, sorry.”
Then he messaged again an hour later. “Hold on, did you just mean Waterstones?”
It turned out the shop had gone, a long time ago. Merged into a larger brand, and seemingly forgotten. Even a studious Google search returned only a tiny, pixelated photo from around 1999 (confirming my memory of the drab olive carpets if nothing else).
Yet, there was something about this place that had stuck with me.
“Did you not have a bookshop you used to go to when you were little?” I asked my dad.
“Oh yeah, absolutely - Heath’s!” he said excitedly. Heath’s sold comics and second-hand books and had now grown out of its original premises to sell toys and office supplies. “Not as many books now though,” Dad said. “There was also another spot too, a “proper” book shop, not far from there. Wall to wall books it was. Just run by one man and sometimes his wife, and if he didn't have what you wanted, he would get it for you within days.”
He paused a second.
“Had that booky smell, you know?”
I did know. It seemed there was something in these community spots that stuck with us; perhaps not anything necessarily about the content of the books themselves, but something about the place, the people, the experience. Something quintessentially part of the community.
It’s so easy to buy books online from That Corporation We Will Not Name. Aided by the misery of the last year, the instant gratification met by “see book, order book, get book” – usually for less than the RRP – and all within 24 hours satisfies the attention deficit in me. It does so for my friends too; many admitted to finding online shopping easier, faster, sometimes better. But this doesn’t sate the same warm and fuzzy feelings as a physical bookshop. I’ve got no idea what I was doing when I ordered the last couple of books online from Big Money Corp Ltd (you know the one), but I know that the crusty old bookkeeper I met for the first time when I moved back to Manchester talked with me for ages about Dickinson and Fitzgerald and Poe when I bought a copy of Leaves of Grass from him.
And that was four years ago.
That said, we are all shopping more at indie bookshops more than we used to. The national growth of indie shops back this up: the Booksellers Association recently reported that the number of independent bookshops has increased for the fourth consecutive year. Bookshop.org recently raised over £1.3m for independent bookshops since its launch in November 2020, donating profits every six months to independent stores.
Of course, restrictions have meant that many bookstores have had to keep their doors closed for a long time – but don’t let this put you off. Online communities are thriving, and many stores offer fast shipping and competitive pricing for those “see book, order book, get book” whims.
Plus, they’re usually way more diverse in their offerings. I’ve found some political zines I’d have never before heard of at indie bookshops; bought weird music memoirs for my dad at record-cum-bookshops tucked down back alleys, and wooed my partner with some great LGBT comics. Indie stores are renowned for supporting up-and-coming writers, promoting local voices that might otherwise be swallowed up in the maelstrom of mainstream listings.
Community bookshops have been an anchor point, a consistent boon I’ve sought out in whichever place I’m living in at the time. Oscar’s, with the olive carpets; the sea-front blue and yellow corner joint, where books spill out of the door and onto the pavement in reams. The place I went in for an afternoon of peace to write my dissertation and ended up unable to look away from a hen party getting boozy in the corner ready dirty fiction out loud. The place I bought my first girlfriend a book of poetry. The place I bought myself a book of poetry after the inevitable first-girlfriend-break-up...
Across all of them, these places sold more than just paperbacks and hardbacks. They shared communities, interests, recommendations. They were a place to meet authors, the owners, your friends. They’re a place to pass the time, whether you’re a bibliophile or not.
Independent and community bookstores make you feel welcomed, protected. You’re instantly connected to others - be it the folks you stand next to perusing the non-fiction, or the cashier you get to know after a couple of visits who asks about your last read.
With cities and shops opening up again, I implore you to find your own bookshop boon. Google where they might be, but also just walk the streets. You never know what – or who – you might discover, and I promise the memories of the carpets, the coffee, and the bookshelf collections will last with you a lot longer than you might think.
Becca is from Queer Lit, Manchester's Independent Gay Bookshop. Immerse into our extensive range of over 1500 Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans & Queer books at www.QueerLit.co.uk.
The graphic immediately below and above were designed by artist Harry Woodgate, who you can follow on Instagram: @harrywoodgateart.