Tales of the unexpected: inside the thriving world of independent bookshops

<span>Photograph: Harry Borden/The Observer</span>
Photograph: Harry Borden/The Observer

‘It’s like being a GP without handing out prescriptions’: Little Toller Books, Beaminster, Dorset

Just off the market square in Beaminster, west Dorset, is a small, glass-fronted bookshop with bright green walls and an even brighter yellow armchair in the window. “I definitely call it my happy place,” says Gracie Cooper. She co-founded the publishing house, Little Toller Books, with her husband, Adrian, in 2008.

The bookshop opened in 2020. The couple took on the lease of the whole building and “rather than leave the downstairs empty or full of ugly office furniture, I thought, we’ll open a bookshop!” More than 40ft of shelf space is dedicated to their own titles – books that celebrate place and the natural world. The remaining stock is thoughtfully selected by Cooper and her small team. “The plan has always been to support indie presses and to curate the shop along the lines of our own publishing,” she explains. “We wanted to sell books on the natural world, place writing, natural history, as well as fiction, poetry, biography and a really great children’s section.” Packed into the space are beanbags for kids to nestle into and vases of unruly flowers from Cooper’s garden.

“The wonderful thing about having a bookshop is the amount of time you spend talking to people. You can be that person who opens the door, looks at a customer and knows that they need just a little bit of you today. I’ve often described it as being a GP without handing out prescriptions.”

In 2022, two days after the war in Ukraine broke out, Cooper initiated a humanitarian aid effort called Packed With Hope. She galvanised 250 volunteers, arranged for 10,000 rucksacks to be sent to children displaced by the war and raised £80,000. “We also put a blank postcard in with the address of our bookshop, so if the children wanted to write back to us they could.” The heartfelt responses are displayed on a shelf behind the till.

“It was the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life, no question,” says Cooper, who travelled to the border in Romania to distribute the packages herself. “And it was all enabled by this space.”

‘It’s quite a domestic space’: Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop, Machynlleth, Wales

“We do what we enjoy, or we enjoy what we do – I don’t know which way round it is, really,” says Geoff Young, co-owner of the Pen’rallt Gallery Bookshop in Powys, Wales. Young and his partner, Diane Bailey, moved from Nottingham to the market town of Machynlleth in 2010, bringing with them 40 boxes of secondhand books and an idea to transform their new home into a bookshop.

The building – which is attached to the town’s Museum of Modern Art – was previously one of three shops run by three brothers at the end of the 19th century. They found an old photograph of their former draper’s shop and set about restoring the front window, and building shelves to house the books.

“I’m often carrying pots of tea up and down the stairs,” explains Bailey, who lives with Young above the shop. “There’s no door between us and the shop, so there is the sense of this being quite a domestic space, which I think appeals to people. I do think this idea of a bookshop being an experience is actually really important. It’s something people relish.”

The books stocked here reflect the owners’ interest in art, music, politics, climate change and philosophy. Welsh language and translated titles, Welsh poetry and books on Welsh learning are also given plenty of space. Shaping the Wild: Wisdom from a Welsh Hill Farm, the debut novel by a local septuagenarian, David Elias, is a current favourite. Photography is another passion and they recently converted a nearby outbuilding into a two-room exhibition space selling a collection of rare photography books.

In 2021, the couple were asked to open a Welsh-language-first “sister shop” in Owain Glyndŵr’s Parliament House. The shop ensures that this historically significant building remains open to visitors three days a week – and has become a vibrant hub for literary talks and events.

“Looking back, our first shop was pretty basic,” Young reflects. “But you’ve got to start somewhere. We just thought, ‘We’re going to do this and we’re going to make it work.’ And we did.”

‘We manage to do a lot with a very small space’: Round Table Books, Brixton

Behind the sky-blue exterior of Round Table Books in south London are shelves of titles bursting with colour. “That’s usually the first thing everyone says when they walk through the door,” says co-director Jasmina Bidé. “We really manage to do a lot with a very small space.”

The award-winning, inclusion-led bookshop “started with a party”. In 2019, the children’s book publisher Knights Of wanted to celebrate their first anniversary. The Centre for Literacy in Primary Education had just issued its first Reflecting Realities report, which found that, of the 9,000 children’s books published in the UK in 2017, just 1% featured a central character from a Black, Asian or minority ethnic background. Knights Of company director Aimée Felone decided to create a pop-up stocked entirely with books from this 1%.

The party extended to two pop-ups, both of which were entirely sold out at the end of their short leases. A crowdfund began, matched by Penguin, and today, Round Table Books has a permanent home in Brixton Village – a community it wholeheartedly represents.

“We expected the global majority to come in,” says Meera Ghanshamdas, a Round Table Books co-director. “But one interesting thing is the number of people who identify as queer coming into the bookshop. We started stocking a lot more queer narratives, because I’m queer and I wanted to make sure that was well represented.

Lambeth actually has the largest queer community in London, so it shows that if you represent well, you might find parts of your community that may not have been coming in before.”

Getting to know their customers is another priority. “We take a lot of care listening to customers, no matter their ethnic background, age, gender identity,” says Bidé. “Seasoned readers, first-timers, those in a slump, we recommend based on what we think they would like. It is the highlight of our week when someone comes in and says they loved the book we selected. And that book doesn’t have to be Black interest: it could be queer translated Mexican fiction, Afrofuturism, a powerful graphic novel or something for the little ones.”

As well as working the shop floor, which is “the size of a postage stamp”, Ghanshamdas programmes Black History Month and LGBTQ+ History Month festivals. The team organises author talks in schools and promotes literature events across the wider community. Every so often, they will do an event outside London, “but actually,” says Ghanshamdas, “we just want more bookshops like ours to exist in the UK. There are some great ones – Afrori, Gay’s The Word, Book Love – but we need more. That’s the dream.”

‘We encourage writers to buy a coffee and stay for five hours’: Kemptown Bookshop, Brighton

Once a month, the owner of Kemptown Bookshop, Cathy Hayward, opens the shop before dawn to a group of bleary-eyed writers. They make their way up to the third floor, where they sit down, open their laptops and begin to write. Aside from a gentle classical soundtrack and the occasional hiss from the coffee machine, they work in silence. “It’s magical to sit and write together as the sun comes up around us,” says Hayward, who is herself a published author. “Some writers will fit in a couple of hours of writing before going off to work; some will stay until our shop opens at 8.45am, at which point the spell is broken.”

Hayward left behind a career in PR to become the third owner of Brighton’s oldest independent bookshop in May 2022. Already a loyal customer, when the three-storey, bow-fronted shop came up for sale, she told her bank she needed “a massive amount of money” to buy a new car. What she actually bought was the shop – and boxes of out-of-date stock.

Gradually, Hayward began to reawaken the shelves, swapping dated travel guides and childcare manuals for titles by local authors and “weird and wonderful books” on the history of Brighton and its inhabitants. She has also curated a previously missing queer-lit section – “That was mad considering we’re in the gayest part of the gay capital of the UK”.

Hayward has also installed central heating, a much-needed new loo and a café selling teas, coffees, cakes and pastries supplied by local businesses. During the day, customers are encouraged to take up space here. “There’s not a massive pressure to buy books,” says Hayward. “If people want to just browse the shelves and have a chat, that’s great. In fact, we encourage writers to come along, buy a coffee and stay for five hours.” The writer Luke Young recently handwrote his debut novel, Against the Current, in the shop. “We want to support local writers and feel that we played a small role in their creations,” says Hayward.

‘We take the shop to marches and festivals’: Lighthouse Books, Edinburgh

Chalked up on the wall outside Edinburgh’s Lighthouse Bookshop is the message: “Look After Each Other.” It’s a simple decree that the owner, Mairi Oliver, has upheld since she took over Edinburgh’s radical bookshop – an “intersectional, feminist, queer, anti-racist community space” – seven years ago.

The double-fronted shop (previously known as Word Power) has been there since the 1990s, when Oliver was a regular customer. “I say this with love,” she says, tactfully, “but the interior was aggressively ugly.” She inherited red ceilings, black and purple bookcases, scratchy carpets and inaccessible nooks and crannies. “There was a sense that if you care about what the shop looked like, then you didn’t care enough about the cause,” Oliver reflects. A “wee freshen-up” was required.

Oliver’s freshen-up extended far beyond the interiors. “Seven years ago, Word Power had a great history of serving a lefty, feminist, queer community, not just in Edinburgh, but throughout Scotland. I wanted to take that tradition into a new space that was not just about what we were against, but what we were for.”

Gradually, the titles on the shelves began to change. “It’s not immediately obvious, but the more you browse the bookshelves, the more you’ll realise that, if you don’t stock the entire work of Dickens, then you have a lot more room for classic writers from the African continent, for example.” Oliver hired a team of passionate booksellers, building a community that “breeds outwards. We take the shop to marches and to festivals, such as the StAnza Poetry Festival in Fife and the Push the Boat Out Poetry Festival in Edinburgh. We kind of just show up… with books!” When we speak, Oliver is in the midst of organising her seventh Radical Bookfair, an event that takes place in the nearby Assembly Roxy across four days, involving 40 speakers.

For Oliver, a rewarding day at the shop would involve meeting readers “who feel at home here in a way that they haven’t anywhere else before. That may be having a baby queer come in and ask in a hushed tone whether we have any books about women who like women and being able to say, ‘Yes, we have many of those!’ A day that’s filled with those interactions is a good day.”

‘It’s exhausting, but it is the most incredible job in so many ways’: Bookbugs & Dragon Tales, Norwich

On the pavement on Timberhill in Norwich lurks a menacing paper dragon trapped behind glass. He guards the centuries-old basement of Bookbugs & Dragon Tales – a labyrinthine children’s bookshop opened by Leanne Fridd in 2019. The shop had taken shape in her imagination years before she summoned the courage to leave her lecturing post and take on the lease of this 17th-century building. “It was 2018 and I was talking to someone about my plan to open a bookshop in five to seven years,” she recalls. “They asked me what I was waiting for and, for the first time, I didn’t have an answer. So I handed in my notice – and here we are.”

With a background in education, Fridd wanted to create a bustling, dynamic hub for children of all ages to immerse themselves in words. The main rooms are “infinitely adaptable” spaces in which kids can cosy up with a new book, scribble down their latest reviews or make pretend cups of tea in the wooden play kitchen. There are daily toddler classes, twice-weekly bounce and rhyme sessions and an after-school dyslexia-friendly creative writing workshop designed to help children “feel comfortable around words”. The grownup book section is tucked away downstairs, along with a counter serving coffee and homemade biscuits.

“Opening this shop was the most difficult, most terrifying, most unmooring thing I’ve ever done in my whole life,” admits Fridd. “I live in a constant state of panic, juggling a million balls. I work 70 hours a week, the wage is dreadful and it can be completely exhausting and alarming. However, it is the most incredible job in so many ways. We get to meet people who want to share their highs and lows with us. They want to find something that will comfort and nurture them. We see babies take their first steps. It’s a real privilege to be part of our customers’ lives in some small way.”

Fridd has conjured a bright, nurturing atmosphere from the bricks and beams of this 400-year-old building. “Every day is like the perfect day,” she says, “but my favourite moment was when I overheard a child recommending a book to a child from another family. I thought, this has become a self-sustaining unit now. I’m no longer required.”