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The Great Bustling Bookshops of Britain

Celebrate the frontier of independent culture

The Great Bustling Bookshops of Britain

architecture & interior

The infamous British high-street remained shut for weeks—entrances were sealed, blinds lowered, and post backlogged—then on June 15 bookshops were allowed to reopen. No longer desolate, shopping was reintroduced. A flood of interest led to four million book sales during the opening week, representing a 30% increase on last year. It was a sign of confidence, and also represented a new chapter for independent culture.

On March 23, all but non-essential shops were forced to close, many independent booksellers began feeling the weight of foreclosure. Often an industry living on the line, shops had to get creative for customers and introduce lockdown literature. Some offered local delivery by hand or bundles to be collected through the window, many experienced spikes in online sales. But countless others had no other option but to let the dust accumulate. This year's edition of Independent Bookshop Week may feel unusual, but it is perhaps the most noteworthy in modern memory.

Celebrating these treasure troves serves as a resurgence in support, translating awareness to footfall. This week is a salute to the individuals encouraging curiosity and cultivating communities within their banks of books. Up and down the British Isles, gestalten affiliates such as Colours May Vary, Mr B's Emporium Of Reading Delights, Portobello Bookshop, and Artwords forge an alternative for locals and represent some of the best of indie culture.

Flying the flag for indie bookshops from London to Edinburgh, the walls of these stores are bound by an intriguing culture of getting lost in literature. Within the stores, often a sense of quietness and tranquillity lingers in the atmosphere, almost implying "take a seat and read me." Listed are three exceptional bookshops as featured in Do You Read Me?, each doing their part to keep the culture thriving whilst showcasing the uniqueness of the scene.


The Great Bustling Bookshops of Britain

Golden Hare's triumph last year has been one of the driving forces behind the Scottish city's burgeoning book scene. Between 1995 and 2016, almost 1000 independent bookshops across the UK closed, meaning less than 870 currently exist. But Edinburgh is fighting back, Golden Hare is showing what can be achieved. (Photo: Sarah Cooke, Do You Read Me?

Golden Hare Books in Edinburgh

This little store was named Independent Bookshop of the Year at the 2019 British Book Awards.

"I never dreamed that I could be in a job I love so much,” says Julie Danskin, laughing. She is the manager of Golden Hare Books, a small and lovingly curated bookstore in the leafy Edinburgh neighborhood of Stockbridge. Her dedicated team works hard to put together a constantly changing program of events, planning writing workshops, issuing the store’s own podcast, and putting on the Golden Hare Book Festival. Behind the store’s royal-blue facade, graphic novels sit alongside young adult fiction, while art books rub shoulders with cookbooks and books about nature.

The coziest section of all may well be the little paradise of children’s books at the back, where even grown-up readers will love to browse. The indefatigable owner, Mark Jones, who is currently also on the board of the National Trust for Scotland, is actively involved in shaping the direction of Golden Hare Books. At the same time, he has completely entrusted his vision of a modern bookstore to Julie Danskin and her staff.

“Edinburgh is very well-served by indies, and we’re delighted to be one of them,” says Danskin. She is always on the lookout for special new books for Golden Hare. “Our stock is deliberately kept small—never more than 2,500 titles. It changes all the time, so you never visit the same bookshop twice.” Some of the most popular books were stocked following recommendations from customers. The bookstore has won many local fans thanks to its appealing, inclusive program, and that connection goes well beyond a simple business relationship: “We get to see people on first dates, we help people find books appropriate for the happiest and saddest of life’s events, and best of all, we get to see children grow up excited about books!” 

The Great Bustling Bookshops of Britain

People have been wandering around looking for treasures outdoors since back in the 1970s; today, the estate is administered by the Hay Castle Trust. Volunteer helpers have been ensuring the continued existence of the Honesty Bookshop for years. (Photo: Honesty Bookshop, Do You Read Me?)

Honesty Bookshop in Hay-On-Wye

Not only did Richard Booth have an idea, but he also had a plan. The self-styled King Richard Coeur de Livre—which translates roughly as “King Richard Book-Heart”—wasn’t satisfied with one bookstore. He wanted a whole town of them! From his residence, the crumbling castle that overlooks the Welsh village of Hay-on-Wye, he spent the 1960s and 1970s buying countless books from libraries that were closing all over the world and promptly opened up several bookstores within spaces in the little town that had been standing empty. When he could no longer find room for certain books, Booth opened an honesty bookstore in the castle grounds, which remains hugely popular to this day. Those who find something to read at that store just throw the right amount of change into a box provided for that purpose.

Today, Booth’s estate is managed by the Hay Castle Trust. Volunteers look after the bookstore, which is open all year round, its shelves protected from the elements only by a makeshift roof. The proceeds from the honesty box go towards maintaining Hay-on-Wye Castle. And Booth’s legacy extends far beyond that: many other bookstores have opened in Hay-on-Wye since the 1970s.

The village now boasts around 30 bookstores, despite having a mere 2,000 inhabitants. One story still making the rounds tells of Booth’s horse, which the charming eccentric named Prime Minister. The Hay Festival of Literature and the Arts takes place here over ten days every year and now draws in 250,000 visitors. Long live King Book-Heart


The Great Bustling Bookshops of Britain

The quaint building beside the mill pond in the little village of Cromford looks as though it has been lifted straight from the pages of a Victorian novel. Founder Dave Mitchell fondly describes Scarthin Books as a museum where you can buy the exhibits. (Photo: Scarthin Books, Do You Read Me?

Scarthin Books in Cromford

This tucked-away bookstore has been going strong for over 40 years thanks to a loyal customer base and a wonderfully experienced team.

Scarthin Books isn’t the type of bookstore that you just stumble upon. Those perusing the bookshelves have made their way to this little waterside promenade in the village of Cromford quite deliberately. “That’s something we really appreciate,” says David Booker, who runs the carefully arranged store. Scarthin Books is owned by Dave Mitchell, who set it up in his own house in the 1970s and is now retired. Mitchell says that Scarthin is “a sort of museum that visitors are allowed to buy a little piece of.” And its loyal crowd of regulars do just that; indeed, they love this cozy bookstore so much that they once financed renovations to the building via a crowdfunding campaign.

“We are not perfect, far from it. When books are coming through our doors at an alarming rate (which is often), we can be more than a little untidy, and finding what you are after can sometimes feel like something of a quest, but we try our very best.” The fact that sales are increasing despite the store’s obscure location proves that Booker is getting it right. The comfy armchair in the Art Room is almost always occupied, and the program of events generates huge interest. The vegetarian café is also a big hit, enthuses Booker. “Have a natter over a cuppa and a slice of cake,” he says—“what could be nicer?”

Independent Bookshop Week is being celebrated from June 20 to June 27. Learn more about Do You Read Me?