Independent, radical, and riding out the pandemic: Five Leaves Bookshop

Five Leaves Bookshop (exterior) on Long Row West, Nottingham.
Five Leaves Bookshop (exterior) on Long Row West, Nottingham. Photo © Laura Coleman, 2021

Mere seconds from Nottingham’s Old Market Square is an easily-missed alleyway on Long Row West, at the end of which stands the unassuming Five Leaves Bookshop. Founded in 2013, the shop has always worn its identity as an independent, radical bookseller on its sleeve: there’s a strong emphasis on small indie presses among its stock, including Five Leaves Publications (the press was founded in 1996).

While the space is compact, the range is seriously impressive. The shop manages to pack in over 35 sizeable sections covering genres as eclectic and topical as refugees and migration, feminism, disability, anarchism, and climate change. And that’s not to mention the socialism-heavy magazine selection, featuring Asylum, Byline Times, Jewish Socialist, The Internationalist, and many more. There’s even a quirky selection of radical tea-towels (of course).

Five Leaves’ owner and manager, Ross Bradshaw, spoke to Leicester Writers’ Club member Laura Coleman about the importance of radical books, why we should give our custom to independents, the pandemic and the move to online and mail order, and the future of the industry.

Why should we buy from independent booksellers, both during the pandemic and at any time?

There are about 1,000 independent bookshops in Britain, which adds variety to the High Street. In some smaller places they anchor the High Street, but more importantly they engage with their communities, work with local writers and offer the kind of personal service that purely online can never replicate. And they will put up a poster for the local writers’ group!

Why the strong emphasis on independent publishers and small presses amongst your stock?

In some areas, poetry in particular, the most interesting books come from small presses. Often the independents do the heavy lifting, to bring forward issues that only later become of interest to the big boys. Having said that, there’s been something of a sea-change in the big four too. Hachette, for example, owns Jessica Kingsley: probably the biggest publisher of books on autism and transgender (two of our areas of interest). So, we welcome the big publishers also operating on a wider canvas than they once did.

How did you arrive at the genres and special interest sections that you stock?

When we opened, we decided to have a feminism section, an LGBT section and a Black interest section – these seemed as important for us to stock as, say, cityscape. Other sections have developed because of staff interest – poetry especially, and more recently nature writing. We can never quite include everything we want, due to limitations of space, but recently we have been stocking some speculative fiction; partly in line with customer demand, but also due to the evolving nature of speculative fiction – Black-futurism, feminist sci-fi – which fits into what we are trying to do.

Why are radical books important?

The bookshop doesn’t just stock radical books – we couldn’t survive if we did! – but it’s to do with the overall package or presentation. We noticed recently that of the 20 best sellers in indie bookshops we stocked 15 of them, and quite a few were among our best sellers. We’ve felt for some time that the indie section is getting more radical, and maybe we are getting more commercial!

So, being a radical bookshop relies on what we do stock, but also what we don’t. And there’s a lot that we don’t.

But also it’s about how we stock books. Every worker can buy stock in, every worker can develop a section, every worker can develop a range of bookshop events.

How have you had to adapt to the changes and uncertainties of 2020/21, and which of these adaptations do you think are here to stay?

We normally organise about 100 events a year, in the shop and bigger premises. After a while some of the team started to learn how to do online events and now run a programme – yes, about 100 events a year – online. When we return to live events, we will still do some online (it can be easier to get the speakers we want) and some live.

We’ve also developed a pretty big mail order side, and a transactional webshop – that will continue.

What do you hope the future holds, for your bookshop and for independent booksellers and presses in the UK more widely?

The crisis has made a lot of people think about how they spend their money, and more people want to spend in local bookshops, which pay their taxes and do not export capital out of the communities in which their customers live. We’ve picked up many new customers, particularly young people – and we hear this is replicated elsewhere in bookshops around the country.

It’s been harder for small publishers, as the bigger ones were able to secure supermarket sales during the lockdowns, and also people tend to order books they’ve heard of, rather than be surprised by books they’ve not heard of. That’s the value of browsing. So, I hope that people will return to buying the books they didn’t know they wanted until they saw them.

But we are very positive, and our family, the Alliance of Radical Booksellers, grew by nine shops in the last year; and lots of shops outside our “union”, the Booksellers Association (BA), have come in from the cold. The BA has been fantastic over this period.

On Five Leaves’ website – www.fiveleavesbookshop.co.uk – you can find the webshop and check out current events, as well as read more about the history of the shop and the press. You can also watch recordings of past online events on the Five Leaves Bookshop YouTube channel.

Laura Coleman, July 2021