Five Leaves book store started as a small publisher in 1995, with a wide range of interests, from fiction and poetry to social history.
While it still publishes a handful of books a year, in 2013 it decided to take a step further and open a bookshop in central Nottingham.
It has since gone on to win the Independent Bookshop of the Year award for the Midlands regions three times at The British Book Awards. It also one the coveted overall winner award three years ago.
“This is the third time we have won the region and in 2018 we won the national award,” Five Leaves manager and owner Ross Bradshaw told Retail Gazette.
“Did we expect to? We didn’t give that much thought – just put in the best bid we could.
“It was useful to summarise what we did over a year and to work out what was important.
“In 2018 we had a big invitation-only party in a library garden. We didn’t do anything to celebrate winning the region this year – how could we?”
As non-essential retailers have reopened their doors across the UK, Ross said that even while his bookstore was closed, business continued as normal.
“We’ve never stopped trading, doing mail orders, so the core shop we have not been away from the shop that much – they are excited to see people again, but we have never stopped being booksellers,” he explained.
Since reopening, Ross acknowledged that safety was at the forefront of everyone’s minds and to accommodate, Five Leaves has been limiting the in-store customer numbers to five at a time while only having two members of staff in the shop.
Many smaller retailers struggled to stay connected with customers throughout lockdown, but according to Ross, Five Leaves didn’t.
“We have a strong social media presence and regular email newsletters,” he said.
“Because we were doing mail order we kept in touch with many customers, and picked up new customers.
“Our biggest challenge was moving to mail order last summer, not realising how much there would be.
“We now have a good transactional website with about 6000 core titles on it.”
Ross went on to add that fellow small retailers that may have struggled over the past 12 months should “keep the faith”.
“Equally, if you are going to fail, fail and get out while you can,” he said.
“Decline is obvious to your customers so if you are on a downward spiral maybe someone else can do that job with new enthusiasm.”
Over the years, the number of independent bookshops was in decline. But in 2019, after more than 20 years, the number slowly began to rise again. Yet one of the biggest rivals to book sellers continues to be online retailers like Amazon.
So how exactly does Five Leaves push back against these competitors?
“It’s never bothered us,” Ross explained.
“We provide a personal service.
“We have never stopped being booksellers”
“Having said that, a significant part of our turnover has been online over the last year and we expect to live in a “mixed economy” so we have to be sure our own online service is human!”
It’s no secret now that chain and independent retailers alike faced varying challenges amid the Covid-19 pandemic, as most were forced to close their shops for months on end. Despite the uncertain future of the sector as the country takes further steps out of Covid restrictions, Ross believes “the independent sector is the future of for the high street”.
However, he said there was an urgent need for rents, tax and business rates to be reformed to ensure small retailers can thrive.
Since opening Five Leaves in 2013, Ross has collected countless of standout memories. Many of them evolve around its events programme.
“We organise about 100 events a year, previously live and currently online,” he told Retail Gazette.
“Our range is diverse – in one short period we had a Romani speaker, a trans speaker, a Jewish speaker, Black authors… and we have had events with readings in Hebrew, Arabic, Italian, Maltese, Spanish, Irish.
“We keep coming back to Irish events, LGBT issues, poetry, but we have a long term interest in autism and, recently, women and art.”
Staff play a role in organising Five Leave’s events and developing stock, and the store has even set up Feminist Book Fortnight which involves 60 bookshops in Britain, Ireland and Italy.
“Though we have had events with audiences in their hundreds, the one event that stood out to was a talk on LGBT and music,” Ross added.
“That night most of the 40 or so people in the shop were young, school students in fact.
“One young woman said she had never, ever been in a room entirely full of people like her.
“At our first event on autism someone said exactly the same.”
Looking ahead, Five Leaves said it was now focussed on recovering from the effects of the pandemic, with Ross saying there were no big plans just yet.
“We’ve had to pivot quite a lot the last year or so, so doing without major changes for a while would be a relief,” he explained.
“But we won’t stand still either.”
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