Opening a new chapter - calls to support our independent bookshops

Jules Button of Woodbridge Emporium bookshop

Jules Button of Woodbridge Emporium bookshop - Credit: Charlotte Bond/Archant

Did you count down the days until you could go back to a real-life bookshop?

As independent bookshops in Suffolk and Essex reopen their doors following easing of lockdown restrictions, shop staff have been overwhelmed with the welcome from their regular customers.

But some are worried about whether the support will continue once the initial enthusiasm wears off - and are calling for people to use their local bookshops regularly, rather than buying from Amazon.

Jules Button, outside Woodbridge Emporium bookshop

Jules Button, outside Woodbridge Emporium bookshop - Credit: Charlotte Bond/Archant

So important to support high street 

Jules Button, who runs Woodbridge Emporium, said: "We have been getting a lot of people browsing - I think they are so glad to go out.

"But there are also a lot of our older customers who are still very nervous about going out, and so we are offering them click and collect or home delivery."

Jules said it was vital that people supported their local independent traders. "Obviously indies support the local economy - we employ local people and we can also support the community.

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"I support a lot of local schools and charities, but we need customers to support us for us to support them."

Jules added that independent bookshops paid their taxes, whereas some of the larger American online retailers such as Amazon paid very little UK tax.

"It's also about keeping the high street going, because if we lose all the small independent traders, there's going to be nothing to come to the high street for.

"And bookshops are especially important, because books are windows to the imagination."

So which titles are doing well at the moment in the Woodbridge area?

Jules said the novel about Sutton Hoo,  The Dig by John Preston, was proving very popular with customers,  who had seen the Netflix film and wanted to read the story.

"The book is even better than the film. I think it's more engaging and truer to the original story."

Self-help books and titles about mental health have also been in demand, as people want to learn more about these issues during the stress of lockdown.

She has also noticed a lot of interest in murder mysteries, including titles by author Anthony Horowitz, who has just called into the shop to discuss plans for an author event. 

"His book Moonflower Murders is partly about Suffolk and it's been very popular for us," Jules added.

She is hoping to stage future author events not only with Anthony Horowitz, but also with other authors including AK Blakemore, whose novel The Manningtree Witches is attracting a lot of interest around the whole area, and historical fiction author ES Thomson.     

Customers going wild about nature

Abbie Clements, owner of The Halesworth Bookshop, said: "The first Monday back was the best day we have ever had in the four years that I've been at the shop. We have had our customers coming in, showing they want to support us.

"I really hope that people continue to support their local traders - we have got a lovely town in Halesworth and I do feel we have good support in the area."

Abbie stressed that the bookshop is a part of the community, and said she is looking forward to bringing back author events once it is safe to do so.

She said: "I love doing events and I feel that's a big part of what I have been doing since I've been at the shop. People love meeting authors and getting their books signed."

During the pandemic , staff have noticed a big rise in interest in books about wildlife and natural history.

"Wilding: The Return of Nature to a British Farm by Isabella Tree is really, really popular at the moment," Abbie said. The book is about a couple's pioneering rewilding project, using free-roaming grazing animals to create new habitats for wildlife. 

Another popular title with Halesworth customers is Rewild Your Garden: Create a Haven for Birds, Bees and Butterflies by  Frances Tophill, while bird recognition books are also in demand. 

 "I think there has always been an interest in this in the area, but now it's even more so - maybe, as our lives have slowed down, we are starting to take a bit more notice of our natural surroundings,"  Abbie said. 

The Halesworth Bookshop has an online shop on its website and has also signed up to, a new online retailer which works together with independent booksellers, which was mentioned by several of the booksellers we spoke to. Abbie said: "It's been great - but it's nothing like having the doors open."

Helen Bott of Treasure Chest Books in Felixstowe, which is currently closed because of lockdown Picture: MARTIN BOTT

Helen Bott of Treasure Chest Books in Felixstowe, which is currently closed because of lockdown Picture: MARTIN BOTT - Credit: MARTIN BOTT

From murder mysteries to classics

Customers of the massive second-hand bookshop Treasure Chest Books, in Felixstowe, have been showing their support since it reopened.

"It has been quite busy, obviously with social distancing in place, and we have had customers coming from as far as King's Lynn, Maldon and Diss," said Helen Botts, who runs the shop together with husband Martin. 

She said the good weather had helped, with seaside visitors taking the opportunity to pick up some books.

During lockdown last year, Helen told of her frustration at having to stay closed while shops like WH Smith and Poundland could sell books. She is delighted that they are now open again, and hoping the customers will go on coming.

"At the moment it's so far,  so good. But my reservation is that people who perhaps come in once a month or once every couple of months have all come to see us now - so I just wonder what will happen a few weeks down the line. We need people to keep on coming in."

Helen said she had been talking to customers about what they were reading. "People have been reading a lot during lockdown, and murder mysteries have been very popular.

"I also think a lot of people have been reading the classics, some for the first time. They are saying: 'I have always wanted to read Wuthering Heights, or Dickens, so now is the time."

'People want to support local and indie'  

Red Lion Books in Colchester, which has been serving the town for 42 years, has seen customers pouring back since it was able to reopen its doors.

Jo Coldwell, manager of the shop, said: "I feel really optimistic. It has been great to have had our regular customers coming in,  and we have also had new customers who want to support local and indie."

"We are getting people walking in saying they are so grateful for us being here."   

Red Lion was East of England winner in this year's Independent Bookshop of the Year awards.

Judges described the "outpouring of support from its customers "The indie used social media to stay in touch, and staff literally got on their bikes to deliver books."

Jo said the shop had spent years telling people to visit bookshops rather than ordering online, but over the past year had embraced different ways of doing things. 

Their most popular book of the year so far has been the new novel The Manningtree Witches by A.K. Blakemore, a title with strong local interest which was mentioned by several booksellers.

"A lot of authors were delaying publication because of lockdown, but she went ahead and published," Jo said.

"The author is a poet, and her writing is fantastic. And because of the local connection there has been so much interest - everyone is recommending it."

Jo added there was also a lot of interest in a children's book in a similar theme, The Forest of Moon and Sword by Amy Raphael, which is about a girl's journey to save her mother from the witch trials.

Kate Harris, owner of Harris& Harris Books in Clare, reading in her garden

Kate Harris, owner of Harris & Harris Books in Clare, reading in her garden - Credit: Harris & Harris Books

'Social media has been so important'

"It's lovely to be back," said Kate Harris of Harris and Harris Books  in Clare .

"I did a special offer during the first week. We have had a lot of visitors who are so pleased to see us open, and some said it was the very first shop they had been to."

Kate said she and her team had kept in touch with her customers during lockdown via social media.

They also got books out to them in a variety of ways, including drive-by collections, local delivery by foot and car and home delivery by post. And those services are continuing for people who are not ready to come out.

"I have had some wonderful messages from people after they received the books.

"It's great for the community to support independent shops. I have been here nearly 10 years now, and  have got to know a lot of people, and have seen their children coming into the shop."

The bookshop sells both new and secondhand books, and often gives recommendations to customers looking for something that will appeal to them. 

 Kate said  one of her top recent reads was The Offing by Ben Myers, a novel about a friendship between the teenage son of a miner and an eccentric older woman. "It was my book of the last year - it's lovely."  

She also recommended children's book The Boy, The Mole, The Fox and The Horse by Charlie Mackesy, another book about unlikely friendships.

Harris & Harris Books in Clare

Harris & Harris Books in Clare - Credit: Harris & Harris Books

 'People are so pleased to be able to come in'

The Aldeburgh Bookshop, one of Suffolk's best-known indies, has been welcoming customers back since it reopened.

"It's been going well - we reopened at the end of the holidays and that helped, but now that they're all back at school it is a bit quieter," John said.

"I don't think it is quite as busy as it was when we reopened in June last year, because that was towards the start of the holidays. 

"A lot of people are saying how pleased they are to come out and to be able to come in and see us."

John said they had loyal customers. "In a place like Aldeburgh, people do support us."

However, he added: "I think there's a real concern and it's come out more now, about local nigh streets, and people are quite worried about losing their high street. "

John James of the Aldeburgh Bookshop.

John James of the Aldeburgh Bookshop. - Credit: Archant

As well as welcoming customers into the shop, the Aldeburgh Bookshop is continuing to post and deliver books for those who can't visit in person.

John said a title currently attracting a lot of interest from customers is non-fiction title Frostquake: The frozen winter of 1962 by Juliet Nicolson.

"It's very well-written and very interesting, and that's why it is doing so well."

'The first week has been amazing'

Andrew Marsh, the owner of Ipswich's new independent bookshop, Dial Lane Books, is delighted by the reaction since he reopened.

He said: "The first week has been amazing. I’m so chuffed to be open again.

"Monday was - as expected - extremely busy, and whilst it quietened down over the following couple of days, Friday and Saturday were very busy again.

"This week is a bit quieter so far, but it’s about folk coming into the shop just as much as money coming into the till, and it’s all positive."

Andrew recommended local interest title The Manningtree Witches, which he said was proving to be very popular.

He also said: "Now that The Midnight Library by Matt Haig is out in paperback it is once again a big seller."  

"As for me personally I’m reading a lot of graphic novels, and also lots about artists Keith Haring and Basquiat and I have a lot of titles in the shop about both of them."

Andrew had earlier called on shoppers to keep to supporting independent traders,  and said it was important shoppers didn't treat the re-opening of stores as a one-off event and continued to support businesses like his in the coming months. 

Andrew Marsh, owner of the independent Ipswich bookshop Dial Lane Books

Andrew Marsh, owner of the independent Ipswich bookshop Dial Lane Books - Credit: Charlotte Bond/Archant

Giving recommendations to customers

Anna Virgoe, who runs Browsers Bookshop in Woodbridge together with partner Martin Whitaker, said: "It's so nice to be open. Everybody is very pleased to be in a bookshop and able to see the books and get recommendations."  

Anna said being able to talk about books was an important part of the experience of visiting a bookshop.

"Bookshops are about more than just the books themselves. It's about meeting people - we play an important role in the community.

During lockdown, Browsers has been offering click and collect and taking orders by phone, which Anna said had been very successful and helped them to keep going.   

Browsers has its own book group, which has been meeting via video during lockdown.

Its website also shares a wide range of recommendations to help customers discover different authors.

Anna said titles which had been proving popular with customers included the historical novels Miss Austen by Gill Hornby and Miss Benson's Beetle by Rachel Joyce.

Book events

Skulduggery in Stowmarket

The crime writing festival organised by Stowmarket Library has gone online and is taking place this weekend, with two free online author talks.

There is a live author talk by Michael Jecks, author of the Templar series, at 11am on Saturday, April 24.

Then Simon Brett, author of the Charles Paris, Fethering, Mrs Pargeter and Blotto and Twinks series, is giving a talk at 11am on Sunday, April 25.

Although the talks are free, donations are welcomed. To book, visit  the Suffolk Libraries website.  

Felixstowe Book Festival

This year's festival will take place from June 25 to 27, and will be a mixture of socially distanced events, held at Harvest House Felixstowe, and online live-streamed interviews with authors.

Writers lined up to take part include Anthony Horowitz, Esther Freud, Jo Jo Moyes, Juliet Nicolson, Salley Vickers and many more.

Tickets for an Online event will be “pay what you can” with suggestions of £5, £8, £10 per event. To book and for more information, visit the festival website.

Poetry in Aldeburgh

Organisers are planning for this year's festival, to run from November 5 to 7, and hoping to stage a few events in the town as well as online.

For more details, visit the Poetry in Aldeburgh website.