Saturday, October 15, 2022

The Rise and Fall of Second-Hand Bookshops in Britain

In a 2017 post I investigated the persistent belief that the number of second-hand bookshops in the UK was in decline. I used the available figures to show this was not then the case.

The Book Guide, an online guide to second-hand bookshops founded by Mike Goodenough, a Stroud bookseller, listed 1187. By contrast, Driff, in his 1984 guide, had 942. That represented a 25% increase, not a decline.

And the Book Guide’s total did not change all that much year by year. Certainly, there were bookshop closures, but there were also openings (or newly discovered shops) and these about balanced. There was then no evidence of a decline.

Why, then, had the idea taken hold? I explored that in my 2017 post, but one reason might be that it matched expectations. Readers assumed that the growth of internet bookselling must be detrimental to street door bookshops. Well, it might have been, though those bookshops can sell online too: but, if so, not to the extent imagined.

Another reader, in a comment, has pointed out that the population of the UK has grown over the years between Driff’s survey and the Book Guide total. It has: it was 56.4 million in 1984 and 66.0 million in 2017 (Office for National Statistics, UK population mid-year estimate).

This mean that in the Driff era there was 1 second-hand bookshop for every 59,872 people, while in 2017 there was 1 per 55,602. So there were more second-hand bookshops per head in 2017 as well as more in absolute terms.

Of course, the number of books printed and published will also have risen: presumably, even after pulping, damage and discards, the absolute number of physical copies of books in the UK is cumulative. So the opportunity to buy and sell stock is wider too.

But so cherished was the belief in the decay of the second-hand bookshop in Britain that some readers cast about for reasons to refute the figures:

Not comparing like to like

I discussed this in my original post. Both guides used similar definitions of what is a second-hand bookshop. Both made a real attempt to be comprehensive. Driff in particular was proud of this, whereas the online guide draws on reports from readers across the country.

The 2017 total includes charity bookshops

Both totals, Driff and The Book Guide, included charity bookshops. If you excluded them from both totals, there would still be a small increase, not a decline. But why exclude them? These are shops selling second-hand books, which is what we are counting.

The traditional bookshop is in decline

This is a subjective assessment of quality, not quantity.

But there are no second-hand bookshops at all in X [a large city]

This could well be so. In my 2017 post I noted that second-hand bookshops were more often to be found now in popular tourist areas (eg York, Norfolk, the Cotswolds) or small towns than in cities. But the overall national total was still an increase.

When I visited a bookshop listed in the Guide it was closed

The Book Guide relies on readers’ reports: do let them know of any changes you find -  and of any new or unlisted shops. Many booksellers are sole proprietors who valiantly keep their bookshops going more-or-less on their own. But sometimes life gets in the way of books, and they have to close when they would usually be open: or even for a well-deserved week or two’s holiday.

Ah, but now the number is declining

This is correct. The Book Guide has very kindly supplied me with the latest position. In the period from June 2021, when it resumed after a hiatus, about 120 bookshops have been removed, whereas about 76 have been newly listed, a net fall of 44. This is more significant than the usual to and fro of closures and openings, and may suggest the first signs of a decline.

However . . .

These figures include a certain amount of catching-up after both the 18 month absence of the guide and lockdown, so we cannot assume this rate of change every year. It remains to be seen if this is the start of a trend, or a temporary effect, perhaps caused by particular recent difficulties.  I also think that new or unlisted bookshops can be harder to find, so are less likely to be reported than closures. When I'm on book-shopping holidays with friends we now try to visit at least one town not in the Guide to see if we can find a bookshop not listed, and this adds an extra zest to the quest. 

NB: this post has been updated to include the latest figures from The Book Guide.

(Mark Valentine)


  1. I am not buying this. As an avid book reader I have watched the death of second hand bookshops with great dismay.

    I can only assume that the figures for 1984 were massively under reported (given the nature of the report this should not be surprising as small S/H bookshops would have no reason to notify their existence to such a list, and In fact I seriously doubt they were even aware of its existence).

    I grew up in Boscombe (around 1975-1983), a small town on the south coast, and there were always at least three, and often as many as five S/H bookshops within walking distance of my home. When I visited a few years back there were none.

    At university digs in South Woodford (1983-1985) there were three. Now there are none.

    As to charity shops, yes they are still here, and still in similar numbers (I suspect their numbers have actually risen with growing poverty). However, there is a massive difference between a bookstore that has 2,000-40,000 volumes in stock, and a charity shop that might, at a push, have 100. The fact that you elide this obvious fact would strongly suggest that you are struggling awfully hard to make your tenuous case seem stronger than it actually is.

    1. w.r.t. Charity Bookshops. I took it that Mark was counting Charity Bookshops not charity shops that may sell books.

  2. Great (and comforting!) research piece - and thanks for the 2021 update.

  3. Thanks for the Voynich catalog image. Gave me a strong impression of a world long gone.