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Free coffee, subscriptions and signings – how indie bookshops are adapting to thrive after St Andrews closure blow

We speak to local booksellers after it was revealed that historic St Andrews bookshop J&G Innes will close after 144 years.

Peter Rome, manager of the Bookhouse in Broughty Ferry. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson
Peter Rome, manager of the Bookhouse in Broughty Ferry. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

“Sorry, I just need to put you on hold again,” says Peter Rome, before serving another customer.

It’s barely 10am on a Tuesday morning, but the manager of the Bookhouse in Broughty Ferry sounds rushed off his feet.

A seemingly constant stream of locals are escaping the bitter wind and rain to pick up a book for themselves or a loved one.

Having visited the Gray Street book shop myself on numerous occasions – it features a cosy reading nook with a deep leather sofa – I can see the appeal.

Peter, whose parents Andy and Allison own the business, comes back on the phone. “Sorry about that, where were we?”

The Bookhouse is situated on Gray Street in Broughty Ferry. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

We had been talking about the recent news that historic St Andrews bookshop J&G Innes will shut after 144 years.

The store, affectionately known by many locals as ‘the Citizen shop’, will close at the end of this year.

Its ornate premises on the corner of Church Street and South Street are one of the most recognised in Fife.

Jude Innes, who runs the business with her sisters Karen and Maureen, told The Courier that the trio had decided to retire and spend more time with their families.

She added that the current financial climate was not a factor in their decision, stating it was something they had been mulling over for some time.

The news has saddened many locals, who have branded the store an “institution” with “beautiful” goods and “lovely” staff.

South Street store J&G Innes is set to close
J&G Innes is set to close after 144 years of trading. Image: Steve Brown/DC THomson

I ask Peter if the closure of J&G Innes is a blow to the independent bookshop industry.

He said: “It is disappointing to hear.

“But from what I understand, the reason for their closure isn’t for financial reasons. It is to spend more time with family.

“I think of all the reasons to close, it is probably the best you could hope for really.”

With avid competition from the likes of supermarkets, Amazon and e-book services, people have long predicted the death of the independent bookshop.

But according to Peter, business is busier than ever.

He said: “If anything, we are seeing a steady increase in people reading, which is fantastic.

“A lot of people are kind of passing on their Kindles and turning to books again – the younger generation, as well as the older.

“And more people are buying books as well for children and trying to get them away from lots of screens and phones.”

Bookhouse combats cost-of-living crisis with ‘multiproduct’ approach

And with the cost-of-living crisis, it was predicted by UK trade body Booksellers Association that up to 30% of customers would reduce their spending on books in 2023.

To continue thriving, the Bookhouse has adopted a “multiproduct” approach to its business.

Its offering has expanded to include exclusive literary events with popular authors, regular book clubs and a personalised subscription service.

Multiple high-profile writers have visited the shop to meet with fans, including Julia Donaldson, author of the world-famous children’s book The Gruffalo.

It also sells unique book-themed gifts and one-of-a-kind independent bookshop editions.

Julia Donaldson, 73, author of famous children’s book, The Gruffalo. Image: Kim Cessford/DC Thomson

Peter explained: “The one thing we will never be able to compete on is price.

“It is difficult because, more often than not, Amazon and supermarkets can sell books for cheaper than we can even buy them.

“But there are other things we are doing.

“We host events that you can’t get in supermarkets or WHSmith, etc.”

He added that they also offer a high-quality book service that customers don’t get at a supermarket.

How Covid boosted book business

He said: “The selection that we have is better than you will find in Asda or Tesco.

“People ask us for our opinions and we can recommend books.

“They say, ‘I’m looking for a book for my father, he has read x, y and z, what can you recommend?'”

Peter says their offering is also valuable to older people, who may not know how to buy online.

He believes the business has benefited from Covid, which sparked a new wave of readers as people found themselves holed up with more time on their hands.

It also encouraged more people than ever to shop locally.

The Bookhouse is busy this Christmas. Image: Mhairi Edwards/DC Thomson

He said: “Covid was a tricky time.

“We were purely a bricks and mortar business up until then, but during lockdown we had to change our business model and set up a website to sell online very, very quickly.

“My Dad Andy would take orders online and then he would hand deliver the books by car.

“We struggled at the time because we weren’t sure how to handle the volume of orders.

“But it was great to see a lot more people take up reading

“A lot of people joined book clubs around then and a lot of them have stuck with it, which is great.”

‘The independent book trade is not in crisis’ says Toppings owner

Another local bookshop which is thriving, despite all the odds, is the Topping and Company Booksellers in St Andrews.

Robert Topping, who owns the popular business with his wife Louise, believes that economic challenges are a “convenient excuse” for failing retailers.

He said: “The Independent book trade is not in crisis – more and more bookshops have opened – and are relished by readers.

“Inevitably, some will not do so well, but mostly I find this is linked with personal and life stage reasons.

“Bookselling is hard but rewarding work – and blaming the commercial pressures is often just a very convenient excuse I find.”

Indeed, earlier this year, the Booksellers Association in the UK and Ireland revealed that the number of independent bookshops in its membership had grown for the sixth consecutive year.

It marked a decade of growth following over 20 years of decline.

Robert Topping says business is better than ever. Image: Louise Topping

Robert and Louise, who live near Cupar, run four bookshops, located in St Andrews, Edinburgh, Bath and Ely, Cambridgeshire.

Robert added: “We all know where the economy is, and it hasn’t grown for years.

“But browsing in a bookshop with physical books is a highly enjoyable, enriching – and often educational – experience.

“Paperbacks aren’t a vast expense.

“In comparison to many things which give more transitory pleasure, reading books gives hours of fun.

“We are delighted to offer coffee and tea freely when we can as part of the enjoyment of being with us.”

‘Ebooks are not a threat’

Robert is equally unafraid of popular ebook services, such as Kindle Unlimited and Scribd.

He said: “The people who ask us about the threat of ‘ebooks’ I find are sadly the people who prefer to read them.

“But most people wisely much prefer the experience of reading actual physical books.

“Like many of us, I have to use screens at work, and reading from them for pleasure is the last thing I would do.

“Actual physical books can create a deeper impact on reading and have a lasting presence.”

Toppings in St Andrews. Image: Steve Brown/DC Thomson

Marion Murdoch, the owner of bookshop Aberfeldy Watermill in Perthshire, agrees that the closure of J&G Innes doesn’t reflect the bookshop trade overall.

But she admitted that the cost-of-living crisis has posed some challenges.

She said: “The current climate is challenging, as it is in every sphere of retail, but a book is always a very special gift.

“It is a long- lasting gift, especially if chosen well. I think people now prefer a gift like this rather than fripperies.

“The largest issue for us, as for many, is energy costs. Having a three-storey building that is nearly 200 years old doesn’t help.

“But we are lucky at Aberfeldy Watermill as we are more of a destination bookshop.

“The countryside around us, and the transformation of an iconic building into a bookshop, cafe, gallery, and homeware shop, gives us a few points of difference which encourage our customers to keep visiting.”