‘I’m giddy to be here’: the risk-takers who opened bookshops during Covid

Booksellers

More than 60 bookshops launched in the UK and Ireland in the past 18 months – but who would open one in a pandemic? We asked five to share their stories, while bestselling author Val McDermid remembers the bookshops of her youth

Sun 15 Aug 2021 12.00 BST

When I was growing up in a small Scottish town, we had a bookshop that was utterly terrifying. The books were housed on high shelves behind counters staffed by intimidating assistants. If you didn’t go in knowing what you wanted, tough. There was no possibility of browsing. If I got a book token for my birthday or a school prize, I’d always pick a title I hadn’t read yet from a favourite author so I knew what to ask for. Chances were, they didn’t have it and it would have to be ordered. Cue pursed lips and a frown.

Honestly, it’s a miracle that I ever managed to amass a book collection at all.

Then, when I was about 12, I began to escape to Edinburgh and I discovered James Thin’s bookshop. The children’s department was run by the formidable Miss Granger, who encouraged her customers to pick books off the shelves and decide whether they wanted to read them. She had an encyclopaedic knowledge of her stock and, based on what I admitted to liking, she could instantly come up with three or four suggestions. I look around my house, where there isn’t a single room free of the infection of books, and I blame that brilliant bookseller for teaching me how to feed my habit.

Since then, my love affair with independent booksellers has grown deeper and stronger. My first book, Report for Murder, was published in 1987 by a small imprint, a paperback original at a time when paperbacks were not reviewed. The reason I still have a career today is because of booksellers like Miss Granger – book lovers first, retailers second. Hand-selling books to customers whose tastes they know, recommending titles that haven’t been reviewed in the media, putting interesting titles on the tables at the front of the shops to tempt us. And because indie bookshops are run and staffed by individuals with distinctive personal tastes, it’s an utter joy to wander around the shelves, stumbling on the unexpected or the unknown.

One of the few genuine positives to come from the last 18 months is that so many people have rediscovered the pleasure of escaping into a book. (And that some of them have decided to service our addiction by becoming dealers…)

During lockdown, when it was permitted, I was regularly invited to Portobello Books and to Topping & Co to sign stock. Invariably, I walked out with a bagful – some by authors I’ve been reading for years, but many I hadn’t even known existed. It’s wonderful to see new indie bookshops opening – just last week, Rare Birds opened its doors in Stockbridge here in Edinburgh. The more, the merrier, say I.

Books are an adventure, and independent bookshops are the secret maps for the journey.

  • Val McDermid’s new novel, 1979 (Little, Brown, £20), is published on 19 August

Truman Books, Farsley, Yorkshire

Amanda Truman: ‘The first day we opened I sold a third of my stock.’ Photograph: Gary Calton/The Observer

“It’s a complete 180 from what I was doing before,” says Amanda Truman, who started 2020 as a busy travel executive living between London and Singapore, and ended the year owning a bookshop in a small town outside Leeds.

Before Covid hit, Truman “was getting on a plane every other week”. Then “it all came crashing to a halt”. Made redundant and grounded owing to travel restrictions, she turned to an idea that “had always been at the back of my mind”, ever since she worked at a bookshop as a student, and decided to give it a shot.

Truman initially researched opening in London, but the margins looked impossible. Visiting a friend in Leeds, where she had gone to university 20 years earlier, she realised that Yorkshire rents were “three, four, five times” smaller, while the price of a book remained the same. She found a former haberdashers in Farsley, an old mill town on the way to Bradford, and by November she was selling up her house and moving north.

There were complications. Her plans to open Truman Books in January were upended by the second lockdown. The four-month delay did, however, give her time to “get a handle on the day-to-day stuff” before she turned her mind to more ambitious offerings – “book clubs, writing clubs, courses for kids”. It was worth the wait. “The first day that we opened, I sold a third of my stock,” she says. “We didn’t have time to breathe.”

She loves her radically different new lifestyle. “I walk to work rather than spend 45 minutes on the tube. I know my neighbours, and I get to go walking in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside at the weekends.”

Despite the huge increase in online shopping during the pandemic, Truman still believes it’s a good time to open a physical bookshop. “Over lockdown, people became very much more aware of their local community, and where they were spending their money. They want to shop local and support independents. That works in a bookshop’s favour.”

For Truman, who grew up in Somerset, the response in Farsley has been gratifyingly warm. “It’s been quite moving actually,” she says. “People are super-excited to have this bookshop in their village. I had a guy in the shop today saying, ‘We’re all really giddy that you’re here.’ That was lovely.” She laughs. “I’m really giddy that I’m here as well.”

What three words sum up your bookshop?
Friendly, local, convivial.

A bestseller since you opened?
Relentless by [Olympic athlete] Alistair Brownlee, who is from the next village along. I thought, I’ll get five signed copies. Then I stuck it on Facebook and we sold the five copies within about 10 minutes. It’s done really well.

Favourite bookshop?
Going to Hay-on-Wye tipped me into making the decision to open my shop. I particularly love Murder and Mayhem there, which specialises in murder mystery books.

Shakespeare or Sally Rooney?
I’m not a Sally Rooney fan. I know that’s an unpopular opinion. I don’t really get her. But I am a lover of Shakespeare.

What are you reading at the moment?
The Other Black Girl by Zakiya Dalila Harris. I’m enjoying it a lot. It explores being black in white spaces, which is something I have a lot of experience with.

Your mentor or hero?
My late mother, who got me into reading. She was an English literature teacher, and so I was surrounded by books from day one. She would have loved my bookshop.

Adventure into Books, Blairgowrie, Perth and Kinross

‘We didn’t plan on the pandemic’: Ralph Baillie and Kate Davies outside their bookshop in Blairgowrie, Perthshire. Photograph: Katherine Anne Rose/The Observer

When Kate Davies first came up with the idea of opening a bookshop in Blairgowrie, the soft-fruit capital of Scotland, her husband, Ralph Baillie, imagined his contribution would be minor at best. Davies, a political economist, had loved books all her life, whereas Baillie, a salmon farmer who went on to work in animal health, wasn’t a big reader. “I thought, well, I’ll help to build the shelves and the counter and things like that,” he says, laughing. “I never imagined that I’d end up looking after the place.”

The couple had moved to Blairgowrie, close to where Baillie grew up, in 2017, after many years living in Oxfordshire. Davies loved her new home town but felt it was missing a bookshop. The plan to fill that gap themselves firmed up at the start of 2020, and they signed the lease for Adventure into Books on 1 March. Davies had done extensive research and number-crunching, seeking help from the Booksellers Association and a business development service called GrowBiz. “But of course,” she says, “we didn’t plan on the pandemic.”

It’s been a bumpy ride. The shop was meant to open in the run-up to Easter, but was delayed till July. They traded for six months, then closed after Christmas for another four. “We opened again, we then got Covid, so we closed again, opened again…” Davies laughs ruefully. “Apart from everything else, I’ve learned how to open and close my business really efficiently.”

The first lockdown was “actually OK”, says Davies. “It gave us more time to work out what that initial stock was going to be, to think about who we were advertising with. And Ralph was still putting up walls.” The second lockdown in January was “much harder,” she goes on, “because we knew what we were missing.”

By then, Baillie was firmly ensconced on the shop floor. “I’ve really loved it from day one,” he says, still sounding surprised at the turn his life has taken. “I feel very much more a part of a community now than I’ve done for a very long time. People come into the bookshop and you get their life stories. It’s actually great fun.”

“And the community has been very supportive,” says Davies, who looks after the accounts and still moonlights as a political economist. “It’s at the point where people come in, having found a book they want on the big A [Amazon], and they say, ‘But I want to buy it from you’. That’s just fantastic. It feels like there’s real pride in the town that somebody opened a business here during a pandemic.”

What three words sum up your bookshop?
KD:
Welcoming, wonderful, (a bit) wacky.

What has been a bestseller since you opened?
KD:
Going to the Berries: Voices of Perthshire and Angus Seasonal Workers by Roger Leitch. It’s the story of this place, written by a bona fide ethnologist. All we have to do is put it in window and somebody will come in and buy it.

Favourite bookshop?
KD:
Blackwell’s in Oxford. It’s an overwhelming place. I believe that they have every book in the world.

Dream writer to appear at your shop?
KD:
[Economist and banker] Mark Carney. I just want an hour’s chat with him for myself, and if other people want to come and hear it, that’s fine.

RB: Ian Rankin. If you live anywhere in Scotland, he’s considered local. And he’s a huge name. It would be very exciting to have him in.

Shakespeare or Sally Rooney?
KD:
Well, it has to be Shakespeare, but having said that, I haven’t got any Shakespeare in, and we both loved Normal People.

Bookbar, north London

Chrissy Ryan: ‘My ambitions for BookBar are quite massive.’ Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Guardian

In Chrissy Ryan’s original conception, BookBar – a bookshop and wine bar on Blackstock Road in north London – was first and foremost a space for socialising. Customers would come to drink as well as browse (and maybe buy an extra hardback after a couple of glasses). There would be regular literary events with people crammed into the shop and wine flowing. “The whole thing is about making books social and bringing people together through books,” says Ryan, “so having to launch online” – as she did in February, after the second lockdown scuppered her carefully-laid plans – “seemed kind of counterintuitive.”

But she turned it to her advantage. First, Ryan launched a click-and-collect service and chatted to customers on the doorstep. She poured her energies into TikTok and Instagram, seeking out people in their 20s and 30s “who bought books regularly but didn’t necessarily buy them from an independent bookshop”. Unable to invite authors in to speak about their work, she created an online book club and gathered questions to pose to the likes of Brit Bennett and Curtis Sittenfeld. “Now we have 200 members, which for a small shop that launched a few months ago is huge,” she says.

Ryan, 27, grew up in Gloucestershire and has worked around bookshops since leaving university – she was a sales rep for an independent publisher and recently spent six months running a bookshop in the Maldives. She is very driven (“My ambitions for BookBar are quite massive,” she tells me) and “a genuinely quite positive, upbeat person”, but the Covid-related delays and setbacks have been a slog. Last month, she had to cancel a series of sell-out author events because “it didn’t feel right, this space is too small”.

Despite that, the shop, which finally opened on 12 April, is now doing a brisk trade and Ryan has employed three people – all under 30 – to help her buy and sell books and pour wine. She is bristling with plans for the future, among them literary supper clubs and a “read dating” event for book-loving singletons. “I love what I’m doing,” she says, “and it feels like I’m only at the tip of the iceberg of all the things I envisage I’ll do.”

What three words sum up your bookshop?
Making books social.

What has been a bestseller since you opened?
Detransition, Baby by Torrey Peters has been a massive one this year.

Favourite bookshop?
Exclusive Books, which is kind of a South African equivalent of Waterstones, has a great branch in Johannesburg, in the Hyde Park area, It’s a really good example of how a chain bookshop can do what independent bookshops do really well – it has a café and they do wine and it looks gorgeous.

Dream writer to appear at your shop?
Curtis Sittenfeld, one of my all-time favourite writers. We did her recent novel, Rodham, for our book club and spoke to her online, but she hasn’t actually been here.

Shakespeare or Sally Rooney?
Sally Rooney. But I did a Masters in Shakespeare, so I can’t really abandon him.

Your mentor/hero?
Sylvia Beech, [the American bookseller] who founded Shakespeare and Company in Paris. She had an amazing vision, and created a bookshop that’s lasted a century, which is quite impressive.

Bookbag, Exeter

‘We had queues outside in the first few weeks’: Malcolm and Charlie Richards photographed in their bookshop. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

For years, Charlie and Malcolm Richards – she’s a former marketing manager, he’s a teacher and a researcher at Exeter University – dreamed of opening a bookshop. They imagined what titles they’d stock, what records they’d play, and how they’d make it a welcoming space, accessible to all. “But I don’t think I ever really took it seriously until the pandemic happened,” says Charlie. “It was just such a crazy year. And then a space came up in an area which is perfect” – Fore Street in Exeter, a haven for independent retailers – “and lots of things just fell into place.”

The couple, who moved from London to Devon six years ago, wasted no time seizing their dream. “We took over the unit at the end of November 2020, determined to open for Christmas,” says Charlie. “We had about two weeks – and we did it!” It helped that the space, previously a retro gaming shop, just needed a lick of paint and some artwork – and that Malcolm was able to boil their new trade down to the essentials: all you need, he maintained, are books and a card reader. “The rep from the wholesaler said that she’d never seen a bookshop opening so quickly,” says Charlie.

The result is Bookbag, a small shop with a big heart, and a carefully curated selection that gives prominence to feminist literature and books by writers of colour. They dotted it with chairs, to make people feel at home, and put a turntable on the counter, but almost immediately the second lockdown forced them to close.

To add to their challenges, they had two kids, seven and 10, to look after. Juggling home-schooling with opening a bookshop was “at times horrific, painful,” laughs Malcolm, “but wonderful too, because you’ve got time with your family. Also, we involved the kids in the business. They pick a lot of the children books, and their friends offer recommendations – they’re pretty comfortable offering customer advice.”

He’s grateful, too, to the local community, who “sustained us. They’ve been amazing.” People who’d neverset foot in the shop were placing orders, and when they reopened in mid-April, “you could feel the excitement of people starved of the kind of sensory pleasure that you get from going into a bookshop,” says Charlie. “We had queues outside in the first few weeks.”

Has their love affair with bookshops stayed strong? Or are books in danger of becoming a commodity, mere units to shift? “Never,” says Malcolm firmly. “I can’t see us ever becoming one of those pile-em-high places. First and foremost, we’re fans of books, and that really hasn’t changed.”

What three words sum up your bookshop?
CR:
Books, chat, vibes.

And three words summing up your typical customer?
MR:
Loving, caring, understanding.

What has been a bestseller since you opened?
CR:
King of Rabbits by Karla Neblett, a writer of colour from Somerset. Our bestseller list seems to be completely different from other bestseller lists. There’s a lot of Audre Lorde and James Baldwin in there as well.

Favourite bookshop?
MR:
Jazzhole in Lagos. They do books, music, social space, vibes, and food as well. It is possibly the best bookshop in the world.

Shakespeare or Sally Rooney?
MR:
Neither.

Mentor or hero?
CR:
Years ago, I worked for a London venue called The End, owned by Zoe and Layo Paskin. A lot of what I learned about hospitality and quality from them have influenced what I want this shop to be.

Books at One, Letterfrack, Ireland

‘With coffee and a nice seating area, it’s become a hub’: Mary Ruddy and Vincent Murphy outside their bookshop. Photograph: Patrick Bolger/The Observer

As rural bookshops go, Books at One is particularly out of the way. In the beautiful little Quaker town of Letterfrack, in the west of Ireland, it is tucked away down a side street, occupying the ground floor of a stone building that was originally a forge. When it opened in May 2021, after a false start last December (lockdown intervened after a mere 10 days), it didn’t even have signs to advertise its existence.

“Our idea was that for most of the day we’d be sitting around reading books, and the odd customer would come in and we’d talk about books,” says co-owner Mary Ruddy. “But I’m glad to say that there’s more than the odd customer coming in now.”

In fact, says her husband, Vincent Murphy, they’ve been surprised by how busy the shop has been over the past few months, despite the low-key opening. “We put up little teaser signs to start with, on the approach roads to Letterfrack. They were in the shape of a book, made out of wood, saying things like ‘Where stories begin’ and ‘The magic of books’. Then I did some Roald Dahl sayings like ‘This foulsome snozcumber’ or ‘Delumptious, fizzy frobscottle’. It’s amazing the number of kids who saw this from the back of the car and said, ‘Mammy mammy, that’s Roald Dahl, let’s go find this place!’”

Murphy had a background in graphic design; one of his specialisms over the years was food packaging. After meeting Ruddy, who worked in community development and human rights law, they moved to Connemara and in 2013 launched a small publishing company called Artisan House, putting out three or four illustrated books a year. The bookshop, which they set up downstairs, seemed like a natural next step, and they had support from the One Foundation, run by Irish philanthropist Declan Ryan, whose vision is to launch a bookshop in every county in Ireland, prioritising areas that lack them.

In line with Ryan’s vision, the shop of Letterfrack does more than just sell books. Now that people have started to discover it, it’s becoming a focal point for the community. “The fact that it has coffee, and there’s a nice area for sitting, [means] it creates a hub,” says Ruddy. “We notice the local book club has started having their meetings with us and people are making arrangements to meet here for coffee. That’s what we wanted to be – a very accessible, friendly environment.”

What three words sum up your bookshop?
VM:
Joyful, authentic, heartfelt.

What has been a bestseller since you opened?
MR:
Why the Moon Travels by Oein DeBhairduin. It’s published by Skein Press, which publishes voices that otherwise wouldn’t get heard. This one is a book written by a Traveller and illustrated by a Traveller. And it’s just the most gorgeous book about travelling and different things that are occurring in nature.

Favourite bookshop in the world?
VM:
Charlie Byrne’s in Galway is a fabulous bookshop. We always get a great welcome there, and they are great people to talk to.

Dream writer to appear at your shop?
VM:
Do you know who I’d love to see walk in? James Joyce. I really would. To tell me all about Ulysses.

Shakespeare or Sally Rooney?
MR:
We’ll skip that one. Though Sally Rooney is probably a better seller at the moment, I’d say.

What are you reading now?
VM:
Madhouse at the End of the Earth by Julian Sancton. It’s an account of a journey into the Antarctic, a bit of a horror story, but very compelling. Some fantastic photographs in it as well.

MR: Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Seamus O’Reilly.

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