Arts Muse

The importance of independent bookstores

Hannah Carley reflects on the importance of independent bookstores and how they can encourage diversity in literature.

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Image Credit: Alexandre Duret-Lutz

This month saw the UK launch of Bookshop.org, a new online service supporting over 130 independent bookshops. The initiative offers each business a virtual shop front on its website, providing them with an opportunity to compete with online retailers such as Amazon. With the second national lockdown forcing bookshops to close their doors once again, this new premise has the potential to become a lifeline for many businesses over the coming months.

The need for initiatives such as Bookshop.org to be successful cannot be overstated. Put simply, they can be the difference between survival and bankruptcy for many independent booksellers. The positive impact these shops have on both the communities they serve and on literature as an art form is one that should not be lost.

Local bookshops often become cornerstones within communities, providing a refuge for many and a welcoming space for all those who enjoy engaging with literature. Through book clubs, book signings and other events they are able to bring people together offering a personalised consumer experience that can not be replicated in an online setting.

Aside from offering a safe community-filled space for those who love reading, independent bookshops play a crucial role in supporting new and local authors. Many authors can attribute their beginning to these shops as they are able to feature less prominent works in ways that large chain stores are unable to. Raising the voices of up and coming talent in this way ensures that the future of British literature will remain as strong as it is today in the future.

Independent bookshops also have a key role to play in diversifying literature as an art form. The Black Lives Matter movement has led to an increased awareness of the lack of diversity in publishing across the UK. Authors from ethnic minority groups are statistically less likely to receive contracts from major publishers – and are more likely to rely on the support of independent bookshops as a result. It is through a range of stories from different backgrounds that we can develop a diverse literary landscape, and our independent bookshops have a key role to play in ensuring all authors get their chance.

In fact, this issue extends beyond race and culture. We need books to better represent all of the different communities across the globe. From different languages and cultures to genders and sexual orientations, all groups deserve to be represented equally in literature and independent bookshops are the key. They encourage us all to expand our literary horizons. Beyond giving authors a chance to express themselves in writing in ways we may not have seen before, they also expose us to books we may not otherwise read.

In a physical bookshop, the texts we see in front of us are diverse. On a website cookies and algorithms can eventually shoehorn us into the genres and authors we generally gravitate towards - we lose our exposure to different literary voices and receive a watered-down experience as a result. Independents offer both community and diversity in equal measure in a way that should never be lost.

Great examples of the important work of independent bookstores can be seen right here in York. Whether it’s the five floors and cosy reading spaces of York Minster Bookshop or the showcase of LGBTQ creators and stories at The Portal, this city highlights the vibrancy and heart of the wider independent scene - and these are just two of many examples. Having such a wide range of reading choices just a walk or bus ride away is a privilege that we have to hope we can keep.

The value of independent bookshops both in this city and further afield is clear. Beyond their role in our communities, they encourage and help to encourage diversity that not only contributes to a vibrant literary scene but that marginalised voices deserve. As independent businesses in all retail sectors continue to face challenges due to the pandemic, we must hope that organisations like Bookshop.org and the sheer determination of business owners is enough to keep them alive. Those of us who call ourselves readers should want to see them survive.

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