Discover how Cornwall's indie bookshops coped in lockdown

The Bookseller bookshops are in Falmouth, St Ives and Padstow in Cornwall

The Bookseller group of bookshops is in Falmouth, St Ives an Padstow - Credit: St Ives Bookseller

SIMONE STANBROOK-BYRNE discovers that indie bookshops are alive and kicking.

What connects the Cornish coast, a massive house fire and a dodgy housekeeper? The answer is, of course, Daphne du Maurier’s enduring novel, Rebecca. In a county renowned for its literary heritage, du Maurier, whose writing was so influenced by Cornish locations, is probably one of the most celebrated: Fowey hosts an annual festival and du Maurier’s family still lives in the area. Her books are ever-popular.

Hand in hand with books go bookshops and we have a wealth of excellent independents dotted around the county, places rich with reading material, where it is such a joy to visit and browse.

Running any business throws up challenges and in recent times bookshops have faced unimaginable pressures. The loss of the Net Book Agreement 25 years ago was later followed by the rise in e-books. Those who predicted that this would sound the death knell for print books were wrong. But then online sales from multinationals surged and the global pandemic struck.

But, while retail has been struggling, many bookshops have come through the crisis fighting fit; the Booksellers Association has recently announced the opening of 54 new bookshops nationally in pandemic-infested 2021, and independents are at a nine-year high.

I recently chatted with Ron Johns, who runs The Bookseller group of bookshops in Falmouth, St Ives and Padstow. He tells me that having to suddenly shut completely, in early 2020, was a complete shock, but embracing modern technology has been a saving grace.

Ron’s son, Daniel, manages the Padstow shop and his IT skills helped all three stores to develop websites that could rise to the challenge of selling online, and to create click-and-collect systems. They have also taken on a dedicated employee to deal with social media, raising the profile of the bookshops and announcing their presence to the public.

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'Without the Government assistance that was on offer during the pandemic it would have been incredibly difficult,' Ron says with honesty, explaining that, initially, they had to furlough staff and just run this family business from within the family. But once the doors reopened to customers the staff came back and 'within a week we were really busy – and that just continued,' he tells me. 'The minute Cornwall was opened up to tourists it became quite unbelievably busy and last year [2021] we had our strongest year ever.'

This is heartening to hear and, having been closed for the last two Easters, one of Cornwall’s busiest trading times, Ron is optimistic about 2022 when it will be 'business as usual' during the holiday season.

The three shops focus primarily on books, alongside greetings cards and some stationery. All are well-located for footfall and trading. The Padstow Bookseller is closely associated with nearby Rick Stein’s restaurant and the St Ives shop sits along the cobbled street near the harbour, exuding a great sense of ‘Cornishness’, with its lovely slate floors.

The St Ives Bookseller site is small but regularly hosts author signings

The bijou St Ives site occasionally hosts authors coming in to sign books - Credit: St Ives Bookseller

Alice Harandon is manager of the bijou St Ives site where, when things were ‘normal’, they would occasionally host authors coming in to sign stock. Despite the constraints of space, they held the launch for Catrina Davies' Homesick 'which was a squeeze but great fun'. Since Covid they have taken part in a few virtual events via Zoom, along with their sister shops, and are hoping to get back into the swing of things with live events, as ordinary life resumes.

In Falmouth, where Ron owns the whole building, they have the delightful Dolly’s Tea Rooms upstairs. Occasional author events are hosted and the bookshop was a keen player in the new Falmouth Book Festival which launched last year – another confident statement for the future of physical books and a notable date in Cornwall’s cultural calendar.

Ron describes independent bookshops as 'place makers', a positive aspect that estate agents like to cite as a selling point for a town, something to draw people in. In his opinion the key to a good bookshop is 'fantastic book stock and fantastic staff, acting as a conduit of knowledge to be passed to customers and creating an environment that is a good place to be'.

A proper bookshop is a wonderous thing: it is a community of people who love books, somewhere to handle ‘real’ tomes, assessing their substance, their story; a place in which to feed the soul.

In our flitting, digital lives reading a book helps to restore and improve attention span – it is good for us in so many ways. So, if you have a bookshop near you, go there, support it, relish its ambience and choose a proper book to read. The printed page is here to stay.

Falmouth Book Festival 2022 will take place in October

Fowey Festival of Art and Literature will run 6-14 May 2022