If there was any doubt that Five Leaves is a radical bookshop it was dispelled the day after the General Election when a stream of Labour voters, Greens and assorted lefties drifted into the shop seeking comfort after the storm. We found ourselves providing an open therapy group for the forlorn (as we were ourselves). We printed up some badges – Don't Blame Me, I Voted Labour/Green/I'm an Anarchist, as well as a set carrying the Joe Hill slogan, Don't Mourn, Organise...
But how can a political bookshop survive on the high street? We were, in November 2013, the first independent of any description to open in a city centre this century, and there are not many radical bookshops around. Like any good independent, we prioritise customer service – we offer next day supply for most UK books and one or two weeks for most books from the USA. Overall, our stock might be different to most other independents but for week after week our recent bestseller list included H is for Hawk and we've sold masses of Penguin Little Black Classics. We make sure that there is enough choice for anyone coming into the shop, regardless of their views. We have one very regular customer, for example, who only buys books on Buddhism. Others head straight for our cityscape and landscape sections and quite a few other regulars never get further than poetry. Poetry is important to us, not least as it is a strong interest of one member of staff, and we regularly put on readings.
But in any case, radical books do shift – we sold over a hundred copies of Owen Jones The Establishment in hardback and the paperback hit the national best-seller charts. Many of our customers, however, come for the specialist areas of the shop – Beat writers, Travellers/Roma, Anarchism, Jewish interest (our best selling magazine is Jewish Socialist!), Transgender, Black History... We might not stock celebrity biographies but for some of our customers it is more important that 20% of our fiction is in translation, with its own dedicated section.
Five Leaves Bookshop works with dozens of local community groups including trade unions, the Quakers, Nottingham Irish Studies Group, Nottingham Women's History and various departments at our two local universities. We run an events programme with at least one meeting in the shop every week. Our own mini-Festival, Bread and Roses, attracted 850 people in its first outing, with packed events for Owen Jones, Natalie Bennett (leader of the Green Party) and cult-writer Iain Sinclair. Bread and Roses is probably the only book festival funded by trade unions. As we are not yet two, we are still taking baby steps in bookselling but the business model is working well enough to pay staff the living wage.
The bookshop grew out of the longstanding Five Leaves Publications, which has been publishing literary, social history and political books since 1995. One of our staff also works at Nottingham Writers' Studio, heading the current bid for Nottingham to become a UNESCO City of Literature. The two sides of the business are getting closer – this summer we publish a 5,000 print run book of commissioned stories by local writers including John Harvey, Alison Moore and Paula Rawsthorne as part of a literature development project in the city. It's being launched at Nottingham Waterstones, reflecting the way that everyone in the industry locally pulls together [update - had to move because of a double booking!]
If there was ever a time when independent bookshops simply waited for customers to show up we feel that is long gone. We work hard to involve and be involved with as many groups in the city as we can. And not just in the city – from its previous publishing base and now from the bookshop we work with the Leicester Centre for Creative Writing to run the annual States of Independence celebration of independent publishing. Five Leaves also set up the Bread and Roses Award for Radical Publishing and, with Housmans Bookshop in London, initiated the London Radical Bookfair.
City centre rents make it difficult for any small businesses to survive. Fortunately our city has many alleyways and cut-throughs which provide spaces for “destination” shops. Five Leaves could not be more central to Nottingham. We are one minute from the city's main square and City Council offices and happily occupy an alleyway next to a bookies!
Now that we have been going for eighteen months we can compare like to like sales. Nottingham is a multi-cultural city and many of our customers are new to the city, joining those who have long been involved in the local literature or political scenes. We've doubled the stock since opening. Our staff has increased including appointing a part-time events workers. We are doing fine.Nottingham increasingly seeing itself as a “rebel city”. In literature terms we draw on the tradition of DH Lawrence, Lord Byron and Alan Sillitoe. The first radical bookshop in the city was opened in 1826 by one Susannah Wright and there were several others in our local history. Nottingham's radical bookshop tradition lives on!
A slightly different version of this article will appear in Booktime magazine