This month’s Bookshop of the Month takes us to Five Leaves Bookshop, which is located on Nottingham’s High Street just opposite its Tourism centre. Five Leaves is one of the few independents to open in any UK city centre in this century and is committed to supporting independent publishing, independent thinking and independent writing. We spoke to the shop’s manager Ross to learn more about this radical East Midlands independent.
1. What was it that inspired you to set up an independent bookshop on Nottingham’s High Street?
I’d worked in a previous radical bookshop in Nottingham, Mushroom Bookshop, from 1979-1995. When it closed a few years after I left, the time was not right for me, but I always thought I’d like another go. It took me until 2013 to get round to it! In the meantime, I’d published 150 or so books under the Five Leaves imprint, so I’d never left the booktrade. But bookselling was my main love rather than publishing.
Now we – a bigger team – do both. Five Leaves operates in the same way as most independents, but we have lots of specialist areas and interests and we planned to run events – mostly literature and politics. Until the time of the lockdown, we were holding about 100 events a year, running a radical bookfair and had a lively monthly open book group. Oh, and had started running evening classes. So we offered a sort of bookish community centre cum adult education centre. Our spread was quite wide – hence happily hosting an event on Yale’s Cursed Britain book on witchcraft was not unusual for us. I think it was our third event on witchcraft!
2. What are some of the unique ways that Five Leaves Bookshop practises radical independent bookselling?
Perhaps through organising the Nottingham Radical Bookfair. Normally we have 25 stalls from publishers and second-hand booksellers. We were also involved in setting up the London Radical Bookfair too… and States of Independence in Leicester.
We are not unique in having a publishing division, but we publish some radical books too. And postcards, T-shirts and a mug. Anything, really… But events are – were – our strongest point. Mostly they are in the shop – we can hold fifty people, but we have had up to 350 at other venues (that was for a Verso George Monbiot event) and our radical bookfair has a full programme of events over the day. We might have had 400 for an Owen Jones event back in the heyday of Chavs, as the venue we were using had an overflow in its garden and lobby!
3. Under normal circumstances, Five Leaves Bookshop works hard to involve and be involved with many different groups in Nottingham. However, 2020 has been a challenging year for bookshops around the world. Have you been able to maintain your connection and commitment to the local community?
During the severe lockdown, we turned to mail order, ending up with two of us working more than full time so we could still supply our customers. The shop has always had an interest in Black writing and anti-racism, and a very high proportion of our children’s books feature Black children, so we were well placed to help people wanting to learn about Black history and anti-racism over the summer, our many white parents turned to us to diversify their bookshelves. That continues of course.
We started putting on on-line events, some in conjunction with Nottingham City of Literature, and now have a YouTube channel. Our stock is now all online – the better to support our customers who are shielding or just not ready to hit town yet. Every week we interview a writer for our YouTube channel, mostly people from the East Midlands, and have regional writers doing the sort of poetry readings and launches we would have had in the shop. It’s not the same, but we try. In the autumn we’ll also return to our Night School idea with a course on Irish politics and literature.
4. If you could recommend one book published in the past year, what would it be and why?
Two please. One short, one huge. The first is A Month in Siena by Hisham Matar (Penguin) – a book about art, community and grief. The second is the Pevsner Guide to the Buildings of Nottinghamshire, which is published this week. It’s almost 900 pages. I thought I knew my County, but there are interesting buildings in whole parts of Nottinghamshire that I didn’t even know existed, let alone the buildings in them. I’ll be getting out a bit more next year I hope. It’s published by Yale, but I would have mentioned it regardless of who was doing the interview. We’ve got an on-line launch for this and expect to sell a lot over the rest of the year.
5. And finally, do you have any exciting plans for the shop in the coming months that you’d like to share with us?
Nothing particularly new on the bookselling front other than what I have already mentioned, but we’ve got some unusual publications coming out from the publishing side including a Yiddish version of Michael Rosen’s We’re Going on a Bear Hunt and a special anniversary edition of the long-departed feminist magazine Time & Tide, which ran mostly in the first half of last century. Polly Toynbee has written the introduction. It will look and feel like the old magazine and include articles from its best period.