Extended shelf-life: the rise of Edinburgh’s indy bookshops

The UK lost around 1,000 bookshops in 20 years as Amazon crushed the competition but the tide is turning, with Edinburgh alone about to welcome three shops. David Robinson hails the new breed of booksellers

Jack Clark, owner of Portobello Bookshop
Jack Clark, owner of Portobello Bookshop

In a Grade A-listed Georgian building just around the corner from Edinburgh Playhouse, Hugh and Cornelia Topping are getting ready to open the biggest independent bookshop in Britain for decades. A couple of miles away, Jack Clark is adding the final few titles to the thousands he will have on his shelves when The Portobello Bookshop opens its doors this month. Meanwhile, in Stockbridge, Golden Hare Books are still celebrating their triumph in the British Book Awards in May, when they were voted the best indie bookshop in the UK.

If Amazon and the internet were supposed to have killed off independent bookshops by now, no-one has got around to telling Edinburgh.

Yet the carnage in bookselling is real enough. Between 1995 and 2016, the number of independent bookshops in the UK plummeted by about 1,000, leaving a mere 867 on the high street. Now, though, numbers are starting to creep up again.

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    Amazon can’t be blamed for all of this, says Waterstones managing director James Daunt, as soaring rent and rates and failure to innovate also played a part. Yet from 2010 to 2014, when the growth of e-books and Kindle finally petered out, Amazon was indeed largely responsible. Now, however, there’s a discernible change of mood among high-street booksellers. The optimists are back.

    “Bookselling never went away,” says Robert Topping, who will soon be opening up his fourth and largest bookshop at the Edinburgh city centre end of London Road, where he will stock 70,000 titles on two floors of a former bank. “The risks haven’t either. But people will always want to buy books, and will come in and browse – and that’s not shopping, it’s just part of urban cultural life, just like going to the museum or the theatre. Tim Waterstone [the founder of the chain, although he left it in 1999] always used to say ‘Our competition really isn’t other booksellers – it’s Italian restaurants’. In other words, we’re competing for people’s leisure time.”

    Aren’t there far too many other rivals for that these days? “But we can do things that the internet can’t,” adds Topping’s son Hugh, who will co-manage the store with his sister Cornelia. “If you shop online, an algorithm determines what you’re shown. We offer a bit of an escape from that. You have free rein here to have those moments of serendipitous discovery that wouldn’t be included in the filter bubble that Amazon has created for you.”

    There will be 68 pine bookcases downstairs, and even more in the eight rooms upstairs, on both floors running all the way up to the ceiling and accessible by oak ladders. The 70,000 titles will, says Robert, include “the largest hardback fiction section of any independent bookshop in Britain”. Having such a wide range isn’t just a whim. It’s because he has a point to prove.

    Robert Topping started working for Waterstones in the 1980s, when it still had an apostrophe in its name and managers with the autonomy to choose pretty much all their own stock. By 2000, however, its corporate culture had changed beyond recognition.The number of titles each branch could stock was reduced, central ordering imposed and the independence of local managers trimmed back. Topping, the long-serving manager of the company’s main store in Manchester, objected and was sacked.

    Setting up his own bookshops (Ely in 2002, Bath in 2007, St Andrews in 2014), he was clear about what would work. He wouldn’t have a cafe, because that would reduce space (and staff) for bookselling, but he would provide customers with complimentary tea or coffee as they browsed. And there would be as many different titles as he could squeeze onto the shelves. “It all boils down to having the range,” says Hugh. “We would rather have ten different books than ten copies of the same book.”

    The irony is, says James Daunt, that this fits perfectly with the ethos he has tried to instil in Waterstones since he took over as MD in 2011. Everything Topping reacted against – head office diktats on ordering policy, the pile ’em high strategy of “selling more of less”, nationwide uniformity of the “three for two” offers – has gone. The old HMV-run Waterstones bookshops of the Noughties were, he admits, “terrible bookshops”.

    Waterstones is now back in profit (currently running, Daunt says, at 4-5 per cent profit a year after tax and deductions) and by Christmas he hopes to open a 2,000 square foot bookshop in Edinburgh’s Stockbridge stocking 30,000 titles.

    By then there’ll be another one in Scotland, although he won’t say where. He can, however, “absolutely guarantee that their content won’t be remotely the same” – and he’d say that, too, about the other eight shops Waterstones plans to open this year south of the Border, equally split between smaller shops in market towns and larger ones in city centres and the bigger urban shopping malls. An independent bookseller himself (Daunt Books, which he owns but does not run, has six shops in London), he wants to encourage his own managers to have Robert Topping’s passion and flair for bookselling. “And we do: we have plenty of Roberts in our shops.”

    Amazon is still taking a toll on independent bookshops. Even long-established, highly regarded ones are continuing to close, blaming the internet behemoth for their demise. Margins remain tight and the cost of setting up a new shop can be eye-wateringly high. But what impresses Daunt is the number of young, talented booksellers prepared to take those risks.

    Booksellers like, for example, 34-year-old Jack Clark, whose Portobello Bookshop, opening later this month in a former fishing tackle shop, will be the first new bookshop in the Edinburgh suburb in living memory. The former commercial photographer, who worked for six months at Shelter’s second-hand bookshop in Stockbridge last year before buying the shop on Portobello High Street, says he is hoping to benefit from the growing “buy local” movement.

    “Obviously we’re aiming at everyone who loves books, but the kind of people we hope will come along will be parents living locally who are looking for somewhere nice to take their kids on a Saturday, maybe for a story time event while dad or mum can have a browse around for whatever interests them.”

    When I talked to him he was in the middle of choosing which titles he wanted to stock. “If someone said you had to sit down and think about buying 8,000 books, you’d think ‘That sounds great’. But it’s actually pretty hard, easily the most intense part of the job.”

    Look on it the other way. When Clark, Topping, Daunt, and all the other booksellers draw up their ordering lists, in one sense it’s just an ordinary business chore. But it’s about encouraging reading, literacy and the spread of ideas and imagination too, and doing so in a way even the internet can’t quite manage. - David Robinson

    The Portobello Bookshop, 46 Portobello High Street, www.theportobellobookshop.com; Topping & Company Booksellers, 2 Blenheim Place, Edinburgh, [email protected]