Start Spreadin’ The News
How many independent bookshops does it take to make a cultural capital? And what would it say about us if we lost ours?
We like to think we’re a literary city. From Charles Dickens’ Penny Readings at St George’s Hall, to the gold embossed covers of Joan Jonker and Helen Forrester, the Liverpool Poets to The Dead Good Poets Society, we’ve always loved a good tale – must be our seafaring roots: Sagas are in the blood.
So, during Independent Booksellers Week, it’s time to take stock, and hear a sobering tale of the unexpected. Liverpool’s longest running independent bookshop, News From Nowhere, is being attacked on all fronts. And it’s not just from the Amazon(.com) – it’s from the home front as well.
“The book trade is eating itself,” Mandy Vere, a member of the women’s collective which runs News From Nowhere, tells SevenStreets, “and it’s the independents who are struggling the most.”
Last year, 103 independent bookstores closed, leaving less than 800 throughout the UK. The end of the Net Book fixed pricing agreement between publishers and the trade in 1996 saw supermarkets grabbing a huge chunk of an industry which was about to face its biggest ever overhaul: an Amazonian one, you could say.
For the past 36 years, News From Nowhere has been a radical presence in a city of change: and remains one of Liverpool’s few remaining independent icons. But when SevenStreets visits during a busy weekday lunchtime at the start of Independent Booksellers Week, just one solitary customer browses the shelves.
Vere, of course, is referring to the practice of discouting – of supermarkets selling Harry Potter for a fiver, and stacking up the Top Gear tie-ins for Father’s Day.
Of course, News From Nowhere’s not about to rack Clarkson any time soon – well, not in that way, at least – but, with High Street bookshops forced into a discounting war to compete with Tescos, the most predictable plot-line since Jordan: Pushed To The Limit has been playing itself out ever since.
“Mainstream independents have it worst of all,” Vere says, “they simply can’t offer the three for twos, or the massive discounts. We’re fortunate that we’ve always been a specialist retailer, but there’s no doubt, things are at an all time low,” Vere says, gesturing towards the empty shop floor.
With their reliance on promotions, coffee shops, in-store signings by JLS, and celebrity tie-ins, you’d be hard-pressed to tell the difference between a Waterstones window in Liverpool One and a branch in Inverness. “The high street bookstores are just clones, offering nothing unique, or any reflection of their locality,” Vere says. “Independents like us should be supported for the variety and passion they bring to any city’s shopping experience.”
Independent Booksellers Week is a rallying cry for all of us. Especially, it seems, those of us who favour the quick thrill of the one-click online payment, and the long tail of the internet.
“We just can’t compete on the internet’s price, or on range. But we can order any book in print, and we can compete on knowledge. We know our stock,” Vere says, “And we’ll go the extra mile to source a book for our customers.”
It’s this deep knowledge that has kept News From Nowhere at the heart of literary – and radical – Liverpool for over two generations. But, look around, and, with Tesco Metro creeping into the top end of Bold Street like an implanted cell, you have to wonder: which way will the wind blow?
“Bold Street’s been dead for months,” Vere says. “The grocers has gone, Lewis’ has closed, and Rapid’s relocated. The city has shifted away from us, and people just don’t walk down here like they used to. Church Street used to be the heart of town, now people will stay on the bus a stop further, and miss Bold Street out completely.”
The answer, you’d hope, would be a concerted effort by the city to encourage a cultural hub here, in its natural home – a setting already well served by FACT and a clutch of independent stores and cafes.
The council’s response?
“They’ve just put our rates up by 20 per cent,” Vere reveals. “It’s hardly a vote of support during the recession. It’s a real slap in the face. We bought our building 14 years ago,” Vere adds, “and we have upper floors which we’re able to rent out. If we didn’t we’d be gone. We simply couldn’t survive on book sales alone.”
Between us, we’ve got 150 years of book selling experience. I doubt you’d get that anywhere else in this, or many other cities.
Vere, who’s been with News From Nowhere since 1976, remains positive. As we talk, local artist Nina Edge completes her in-window artwork to mark the week, and staff prepare the stall for this weekend’s Africa Oye event. Later in the year, News From Nowhere will play a central role in the second Bold Street Festival: planned for September.
“We’re more than a bookshop, we’ve been an outreach hub for years,” she says, “our community links aren’t something we’ve tacked on to help us stay in business, they’re at the heart of everything we do.”
News From Nowhere’s range of fair trade crafts, its (excellent) world music section, and its kaleidoscopic notice board shows a store as diverse as the community it serves. “Between us, we’ve got 150 years of book selling experience,” Vere says defiantly, “I doubt you’d get that anywhere else in this, or many other cities.”
To mark Independent Booksellers Week, News From Nowhere, together with the Bluecoat, is presenting an evening with esteemed Guardian columnist, and author of ‘Who Are We – And Should it Matter in the 21st Century’, Gary Younge (8pm, Bluecoat, 16 July: £3/£2). They’re the only bookshop on Merseyside to be marking the event at all.
“We’d love to hold more events like this, but we just don’t have the space,” Vere admits. Still, its testament to their pulling power that Younge has agreed to support News From Nowhere during the Independent’s Week.
“We do have a lot of nice things written about our shop, and we always seem to make those ‘best bookshops’ lists,” Vere says, “but that doesn’t always translate to actual customers in the shop. I wish it did!”
News From Nowhere, 96 Bold Street, Liverpool
Tel: 0151 708 7270