Mournful reports signaled the closure of a much-loved children’s independent bookshop in Southwest London’s Richmond, the Lion & Unicorn Bookshop—this time, not citing competition from e-books or Amazon’s online sales juggernaut, but rental rises.
“It is with great regret I have to announce that after 36 years the Lion & Unicorn is to cease trading in Richmond,” said Jenny Morris, owner and managing director of the Lion & Unicorn, in an announcement on the bookstore’s website. “In recent years our rent has increased to the point where it is now unsustainable.”
Roald Dahl, Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi (co-authors of “The Spiderwick Chronicles”), and Philip Pullman were just a few of the many star children’s, young adult, and even adult fiction authors who gave celebrity readings and signings at the Lion & Unicorn. But no longer.
Alas, the Lion & Unicorn seems to have done everything that an independent bookseller should in the digital era to build profile and community traction, and provide services and value far beyond its over-the-counter sales—all to no avail.
Morris cited her “36 years of following my passion for children’s literature and for inspiring a lifelong love of books in the three generations of children who have become our regular customers over many happy years of bookselling. During that time we have built up close relationships with schools and other organisations within the Borough as well as in the wider community.”
I approached Meryl Halls, Head of Membership Services at the UK Booksellers Association, for comment on the competitive plight of British independent bookstores. “There are torrid pressures on high street booksellers, and retailers generally,” she said. “A massive rent increase can put a once-thriving business over the edge of viability, and taken together with business rate pressure, the combination can all too often be fatal.”
It’s clear in other contexts that the pressure from both large retail book chains and Amazon’s online retail operation, as well as e-books, are major elements in the crisis facing UK independent bookstores. But high rents are a less well-rehearsed but perhaps more deadly factor. “Our members consistently mention business rates and rising rents as key factors in the commercial viability of running a bookshop,” continued Halls. “We are working with our members to lobby government to address these pressing issues. Booksellers were at the forefront of the British Retail Consortium’s campaign to ask the government to freeze rates for high street businesses.”
Funding cuts for arts and cultural activities, as well as for local government, announced in the UK government’s latest Spending Review, set the worst possible context for any relief for institutions like the Lion & Unicorn, however, despite pleas for official action. “Local and national government need to look at the health of our high streets with increasing seriousness if we are not to see a continuing diminution in the vitality, diversity and creativity on our high streets—bookshops being a key indicator of the health of our local retail communities,” Halls concluded.