Home   Bury St Edmunds   News   Article

Subscribe Now

Owners of independent bookshops in Clare, Lavenham, Framlingham, Stonham and Diss share the secrets of their success





Not so long ago it looked like the combined onslaught of e-books and online giants could turn the final page for independent bookshops. Dwindling high streets, Covid, and supermarket discounts brought more headaches and some did fall by the wayside,

But, as Independent Bookshop Week starts today, Suffolk can celebrate its fair share of businesses that through ingenuity and sheer hard work have met the challenges, survived and thrived.

Holly Bellingham opened a brand new bookshop, Byron and The Bard, in Lavenham last October, and believes the key to success is down to three words … service, service, service.

Owner Holly Bellingham (left) and staff member Jemma McKnight outside Byron & The Bard in Lavenham. Photo Lucy J Toms Photography.
Owner Holly Bellingham (left) and staff member Jemma McKnight outside Byron & The Bard in Lavenham. Photo Lucy J Toms Photography.

“My husband Simon and I have lived in Lavenham for getting on for 25 years and I’ve always thought it was crying out for a bookshop,” said Holly, a long-time specialist in medical malpractice insurance. “But I have always had a busy city career and other things through vineyards to charity. I felt last year was the right time for me.”

When a shop she thought would be ideal came up for rent unexpectedly she jumped at it – although the Tudor building, while full of character, was not the easiest place to be moving lots of books.

“We have learned a lot in the last six to nine months. I think it’s a fallacy that people only buy books online and on Kindle now. Some people like to turn over a page,” said Holly.

Byron & The Bard opened last year in Lavenham. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.
Byron & The Bard opened last year in Lavenham. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.

But the books proving most popular are not always what she expected and she thinks supermarkets selling popular fiction has had an impact. “We don’t get many ‘yummy mummies’ coming in,” she says.

“With children’s books it’s either people with very small children or grandparents, aunts and uncles. We get very young teenagers coming in which is lovely. One boy is only 12 and loves to help out. We can’t pay him but give him loyalty stars.

“We have a high number of male customers who are interested in geo-politics, current affairs and military history. They’re not necessarily the genres I would have expected us to be stocking. It’s fun and fascinating looking at the lists from the publishers of new books and thinking yes, no, maybe …

Byron & The Bard owner Holly Bellingham (left) with staff member Jemma McKnight. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.
Byron & The Bard owner Holly Bellingham (left) with staff member Jemma McKnight. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.

“People are very, very keen to buy high quality hardbacks, particularly classics at affordable prices,” said Holly, who named the shop Byron after their black cat, and The Bard after William Shakespeare.

“We have Shakespeare every which way and up. Tolkien and Terry Pratchett are very popular as well, also classic crime like Agatha Christie and Conan Doyle.” They stock well over 1,000 titles plus a small selection of book-related items including handbags, teapots and hand-turned wands for Potter fans.

Holly says any independent shop will live and die by the service it gives. “We have free local delivery and a loyalty card. We try to be a little bit inventive. She believes her knowledgeable staff – full-timer Jemma McKnght backed by part-times Meg and Angie – are a key part of the picture.

Inside Byron & The Bard. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.
Inside Byron & The Bard. Photo: Lucy J Toms Photography.

There is also a strong community focus. “We have some older, very regular customers who want to sit and have a chat for half an hour.

“The bookshop is as much a local asset as the other local shops. The pandemic has taught us all that we need human contact more than we ever did..

“We’ll be making a bit of a splash for Independent Bookshop Week, not only featuring almost all of the IBA awards shortlisted books, but also special Indie editions that some of the publishing houses are producing, some of which have beautiful bindings and/or endpapers.”

Kate Harris with the Shakespeare figure that inspired her bookshop in Clare.
Kate Harris with the Shakespeare figure that inspired her bookshop in Clare.

Harris and Harris in Clare is living proof that an independent bookshop can not only survive but thrive and expand … but not without a lot of hard work, The porcelain figure of Shakespeare that looks down from a shelf over the display of new and secondhand books has seen quite a journey since it inspired the opening of the business in 2011.

Owner Kate Harris, who managed hotels and restaurants before working in bookshops, moved to Suffolk with her husband Frank – the ‘silent’ Harris in the title – in 2010.

What came next made her a firm believer in fate. ”My mother was visiting for the day. We parked in Clare outside a little antiques shop and noticed a Staffordshire figure of William Shakespeare.

“The shop owner overheard my mother saying to me ‘I’ll buy that for you, but one day you must open a book shop’. They told us a gift shop in the High Street was about to move and pointed out where it was.” Her bookshop had found a home.

Harris and Harris Books in Clare
Harris and Harris Books in Clare

“It was very well received,” said Kate. “There had never been a shop selling new books in the town before. We were doing very well and business was growing every year.” Then Covid struck and she feared shoppers forced online would never return. “Lockdown was a pivotal point – we were told to close up our businesses and I was really worried.

“I started doing story time for children on video and would post out books. We had no deliveries to the shop for seven weeks then they began to arrive and that started my ‘what’s in the box, Mrs Harris?’ where I showcased new books on social media.

“Soon I was struggling to keep up. It was the making of Harris and Harris. People who had seen our posts wanted to come and visit. Shortly after we found that little shop was way too small for our business.” A former hardware shop a few doors away was on the market and after years of planning, negotiations and restoration they finally moved in on National Bookshop Day – 14 October 2023.

Inside Harris & Harris Books in Clare
Inside Harris & Harris Books in Clare

“I was blown away by the response,” says Kate. “On our opening day there were queues at the door and they didn’t stop all day. And we have gone from strength to strength. We now have the space to do seated events, like author talks.

“Running the shop is incredibly hard work – and I’m never going to be a millionaire – but I love it because of the joy it can bring.

“You can’t beat a book. They look great, and feel lovely and smell lovely. Highly-illustrated books smell gorgeous and you can’t get that from a Kindle.”

Gill Saunders owner of The Book Cellar at Stonham Barns Park.
Gill Saunders owner of The Book Cellar at Stonham Barns Park.

Gill Saunders owns The Book Cellar at Stonham Barns Park. “I opened the shop in November 2016 and it was completely on a wing and a prayer,” she says.

My husband and I went to a boot sale at Stonham Barns. I saw this very little unit and said I’m going to have that and open a bookshop.

“This has been a dream since childhood. When my parents went shopping they used to dump me in this lovely old secondhand bookshop and it was just magical.

“I had no stock, no shelving, but I was literally open within three weeks. Six months later I realised it was way too small and moved into a larger unit.

“The majority of my books are second hand and I get some children’s books from a wholesaler. Most of the stock walks in through the door – people wanting to sell.

“We said we'll give it a couple of years and see if it really is a business, and not just me playing shops. I do just absolutely love it.”

But she’s not suggesting it’s an easy way to make a living. “It is tough. It’s hard and I know I’m never going to make my fortune and retire to the Bahamas.”

Like her fellow indies she has always been a big advocate of real books over e-readers. “You can’t snuggle up in the same way with a Kindle,” she says.

“The thing that also delights me is that children are reading as well. I have a children’s area and they are browsing the books. The advent of teen fiction has helped. Now there is this massive genre. It’s getting their imagination going.”

Gill, who has always worked in retail, moved to Suffolk in 2007 with her husband Robin. He is now her neighbour at Stonham Barns, running The Vintage Cellar from a unit opposite hers.

Diss Publishing Bookshop has a history that goes back 160 years. It was established in 1864, and marks the centenary of its incorporation as a company next year.

The business has been owned by the Mager family since 1969 and more recently has ridden out the challenges posed by online rivals.

Birgitte Mager, author Louis de Bernieres, Nicholas Mager, ,Karen Pearl and Kris Hall at an event at Diss Publishing Bookshop last year.
Birgitte Mager, author Louis de Bernieres, Nicholas Mager, ,Karen Pearl and Kris Hall at an event at Diss Publishing Bookshop last year.

Birgitte Mager, whose husband Nicholas took over in 1997, said: “We pride ourselves on being a traditional book seller that likes to serve our customers with people, not by pressing buttons. We have 12 part-time staff in the shop.

“Companies that don’t pay taxes have been competing with bookshops for 20 years. The good ones soldier on. There are only a handful of us of the age we are now, so we are terribly proud of it.”

The shop is a national award-winner – it currently holds the title of best romantic book seller from the Romantic Novelist’s Association.

It sells stationery, gifts and art materials as well as books. They are currently looking for someone to run their café which overlooks Diss’s famous Mere.

Birgitte believes diversifying has helped the business keep going. “Nicholas owns the shop and I run it. He is the avid reader, I’m a happy reader.

“I used to be a stockbroker and the reason we are still here is because I know how to look after the pennies.”

She says e-readers - which many saw as a threat - had no impact on them. “It isn’t the same … you’re either a book reader or not.

“People like the feel of the book in their hand. If you’re going to put your feet up after maybe spending all day in front of a computer screen you want to reach for a book.”

But there are still challenges to face. “Supermarkets have taken over a lot of our trade, selling books as loss leaders, that’s the competition we have,” she said.

“The high street is failing and that is really denting the amount of people coming into a town on a daily basis. The issue we have today is about footfall - getting people in.”

But the shop has a loyal following. “Diss is a fantastic place. There is lots and lots of love from the community,” she said.

Thousands of secondhand books line the shelves of Framlingham Bookshop which owner Chris Grogan runs with his sister-in-law Suzie.

Framlingham Bookshop owner Chris Grogan with his sister-in-law Suzie Grogan.
Framlingham Bookshop owner Chris Grogan with his sister-in-law Suzie Grogan.

For Chris, who had a long career in academic librarianship, being part of the recycling chain is an important aspect of the business.

“The shop has been going for at least 30 years, but I took it over last year when the owner retired. I knew it before as a customer,” he says.

“Before I did this I was director of collections and heritage at the Red House, Benjamin Britten’s archive and home in Aldeburgh.

“I’d been selling books online - I needed to get rid of the collection I’d built up. I’ve always been a keen reader, but that’s not a prerequisite of being a good bookseller.

“For me it’s very much about recycling and the climate crisis. It’s best to pass things through your hands and recycle them.

“In the shop everything has been read before and will be read again. It’s part of a chain. Quite a lot of people buy a book, read it, then bring it back. There’s one book that’s been sold five times since I’ve been here … a ‘cosy crime’ thriller that’s set in Framlingham.

“There is a culture in indie bookshops of trying to keep reading going. We have competition from online secondhand booksellers who buy by weight. They might buy a tonne of books and sell them for £1 each.

“In a sense you can compete locally - people like coming in and browsing. There’s an element of serendipity,” he said. Among the titles, many of which are out of print, you never know what you might find to spark your interest.

“They might come in for one book and buy the one next to it. And it’s very much a community thing. People come in for a chat,” said Chris who also sells pots made by his brother Peter.