At just over a decade old, Kibworth Books has notched up quite an array of accolades: Regional Independent Bookshop of the Year, Vintage Independent Bookshop of the Year and Caboodle Bookshop of the Month, as well as a Diversity & Inclusiveness Grant from the Booksellers Association. What’s more, they’ve founded festivals, hosted events in their hundreds, and have even established no fewer than 10 book clubs!
This would be impressive for any small business, not least for a modest booksellers nestled between two takeaway eateries on the High Street of south-east Leicestershire village, Kibworth Beauchamp. But one look at the shop’s exterior is enough to understand its success: cheerful, red-painted door frames, a lovingly crafted window display, children’s books galore – it radiates care and warmth.
Inside, too, this warmth floods every inch of the shop – from the welcoming enthusiasm of the staff and the cosy, cushioned sofa, to the hand-penned signs and “Debbie loves” stickers on selected books. And, for a compact space, it packs in well over 30 genres – each well-stocked – alongside an extensive range of cards and gifts.
Kibworth Books’ founder, Debbie James, spoke to Leicester Writers’ Club member Laura Coleman about how indie businesses help communities thrive, what browsers and buyers can expect to find in-store and online, and why the future’s looking bright for booksellers.
Why should we buy from independent booksellers, both during the pandemic and at any time?
For every pound spent in an independent bookshop, a large portion of it will be redistributed in the local area through wages, taxes and local suppliers. For every pound spent with online-only retailers, on the other hand, none of it will ever get invested back into your community.
We pride ourselves on constantly reinvesting our profits into our stock and, above all, our customer service: we have still been working in the shop every day throughout the pandemic, even during the lockdowns, so that customers could telephone or email us with their requests and orders. We also launched a website – www.kibworthbooks.com – at the end of March 2020, which has our whole shop stock on it, so our customers could browse everything on there even when we couldn’t open the shop, and place orders. We hand-delivered books to homes within a mile’s radius of the bookshop and posted out to anyone further afield. We also opened once a week for click-and-collect when we were allowed to. Bespoke orders generally arrive for collection from the bookshop the very next day at no extra charge, which also competes with online-only offerings.
How did you arrive at the genres and special interest sections that you stock?
When we first opened in 2009, I researched Kibworth’s age demographic and 24% of the population here was comprised of 0 to 15-year-olds, so we gave one quarter of the shop to children’s books. Over the years, we have expanded our stock range, having got to know our customers and their tastes. But we also want to offer a range of titles to suit wider tastes and anyone who visits, wherever they’re from; our strapline is “something for everyone” and we really try to live by that.
In 2015 we were lucky enough to be able to take on the floor above the existing shop as well as the downstairs, which doubled our retail space, so now we have a whole room for backlist non-fiction including travel, nature, science, biography, history, wellbeing, cookery, art and music; a whole room for backlist fiction including poetry, classics, sci-fi and thrillers; and over half of the downstairs is now given over to children’s books.
The categories that have grown the most over the years are nature writing, wellbeing, food & drink, genre fiction and children’s fiction, activity books and topics books. And jigsaws – since the pandemic started, we can’t keep jigsaws in stock long enough to meet demand!
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 launched our website to continue trading when we had to close the shop, but we had always planned to do this in 2020, so lockdown forced us to focus and expedite its launch. The website is definitely here to stay: we have customers all around the world now thanks to it, who appreciate our ethos and service just as our existing and local customers do.
We all have to wear face coverings and follow extremely strict hygiene guidelines, but I am happy to keep that in place. We have also had to ensure customers wear face coverings and use hand sanitiser, which has been quite challenging at times, but most people do this without thinking now. Currently, we can only host four browsers at a time, but I imagine that will be relaxed soon – and, as long as coronavirus is under control, we will be happy about this change.
What do you hope the future holds, for your bookshop and for independent booksellers and presses in the UK more widely?
Next year we hope to re-introduce our Book Festivals: Kibworth Book Festival in June and our Children’s Book Festival in the autumn. We haven’t run any live events for 17 months now, which is really unusual as this is something we were doing regularly and more frequently each year.
For now, though, we are happy to concentrate on the simple art of bookselling: just being here and having the bookshop open, recommending titles to customers, finding the perfect gift for someone, ordering in bespoke book requests, and providing a relaxing and inspiring environment where booklovers can unearth their next reads.
Indie bookshops and presses throughout the UK are more than holding their own right now, with new independent bookshops opening up and indie publishers gaining increasing recognition. I’m on the divisional board at the Booksellers Association and also sit on their Independent Booksellers Forum, and the feeling amongst my peers is once again buoyant and forward-looking. It feels that, if we and our bookshops were resilient enough to survive the pandemic, there’s nothing we can’t achieve going forward.
On Kibworth Books’ website – www.kibworthbooks.com – you can browse the shop’s full range of books (and beyond), place orders quickly and securely, discover the latest Books of the Month, and sign up to the mailing list.
Laura Coleman, July 2021