We all know that independent bookshops have been having a tough time for a number of years, but on Saturday, I had the encouraging experience of visiting two excellent indies that have not only survived the recession, but flourished.
After visiting Lancaster and Kendal earlier in the day, I headed for Ambleside – home, at least for the moment, to Hannah Scarlett – and Fred Holdsworth's nicely located shop, run by Steve with excellent support from knowledgeable assistants. I remember calling in there one miserable January afternoon when I was researching The Serpent Pool, in which some of the action takes place in Ambleside.
Then it was a short drive through Wordsworth country to Grasmere, and Sam Read's shop, run by Elaine, again with keen staff support. Elaine and her husband then kindly invited us to their house, just across the road, for a welcome cup of tea before the journey back down the motorway to home.
Why have Steve and Elaine succeeded when so many others have failed? There is bound to be a combination of reasons. Hard work and determination are musts. Both shops occupy good locations in lovely tourist destinations which don't possess a major chain store such as Waterstones. But there's more to it than that. I was struck by the genuine love that Steve and Elaine have for books, and by the way they command the enthusiastic support of the people who work for them. For any book buyer visiting either of these shops, there is sure to be a genuine welcome, and good deal of well-informed advice and recommendations. And Steve and Elaine are prepared to innovate, selling varying lines from time to time, and showing the kind of enterprise that makes all the difference in a small business. An example is the postcards that Elaine sells, from photographs (of very high quality) taken by her husband.
All in all, my trip left me more hopeful about the future of well-managed bookshops than I have been for a long time. The economic climate present endless challenges, but there is still room for really good retailers, and it was a pleasure to meet so many of them on Saturday.