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Books Are My Bag – part 5

By uczcbsv, on 16 March 2014

Bookshops Are My Bag
Written by Anneliese O’Malley

It was a pretty cushy assignment for the first week of UCL’s Publishing MA – to spend several hours observing and interviewing customers in independent bookshops. We got to know some booksellers, we got to know some readers, and both groups had interesting and complex views of the health and wellbeing of bookshops and print books.

My group’s experiences were marked by the fact that we visited specialist bookshops with a developed customer base. We began our day at French’s Theatre Bookshop, which not only sells books but also publishes scripts and sells rights to those putting on productions. Situated between RADA and the University for the Creative Arts, they are well-placed to take advantage of the local student population, and many of the customers we ran into were either current students or alumni. The shop also hosts a range of readings and events.

In terms of Books Are My Bag, posters and flyers were displayed prominently, but the shop had run out of bags days before our visit. The bags themselves had prompted a great deal of curiosity from customers, though many hadn’t heard of the campaign before visiting the shop. Of those we interviewed, all agreed that any campaign that supported independent retailers could only be a good thing.

This is where our day took a turn for the serendipitous. Roaming through Bloomsbury during the lunch break we assigned ourselves, we stumbled across a small bookshop flying the Books Are My Bag bunting proudly in their front window. We had found yet another specialist bookshop called Gay’s The Word, which has been serving the needs of the LGBTQ community since 1979. What quickly became clear was that this shop does more than just provide products; it also provides a safe space and a community for those who might struggle to find one elsewhere.

The member of staff who spoke to us gave the impression that the shop has been a lifeline in the past, and that it continues to be an important source of information. He was optimistic about the positive changes in recent years, that more and more young people feel comfortable seeking the shop out, and that they can bring their parents with them. To me this shop felt relevant and alive, with a steady flow of customers and plenty of conversation and recommendations flowing between customers and booksellers. The shop also hosts readings and has a weekly Lesbian Discussion Group, as well as having an active online presence. I’ve included a link to a youtube documentary about the shop that explains why it is so important to its community of sellers, authors, and customers:

Finally, it seems to me that independent bookshops need to know who their customers are and make the experience for them something that can’t be repeated by chains or online giants. This is what each of the bookshops we visited, in different ways and with differing levels of success, have managed to achieve.

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