Tucked away in Swann’s Yard behind Primark, Five Leaves Bookshop has become a vital fixture in Nottingham’s literary scene, winning the British Book Awards’ Independent Bookshop of the Year in 2018. As it celebrates its tenth birthday, we had a chat with Five Leaves’ Scottish founder and manager, Ross Bradshaw...
Some fictional booksellers, like Graham Linehan's Bernard Black, are written as devoted misanthropes. Do you find that running an indie bookshop challenges your faith in people - or does it restore it?
Ah, save for a few minutes, I've never watched Bernard Black. I might be grumpy the odd time - who isn't? - but if you were misanthropic, why would anyone come to your shop? Normally I am, of course, all sweetness and light. I do have faith in our customers and am fascinated to see what they read, what they order, and what they do with their lives.
Have you had any favourite encounters with those customers? Bookshops seem to attract characterful people.
Actually, the best encounter was the day after a disaster. We have many customers whose origins are not originally from round here, and customers who are from round here but see themselves as active citizens of the world. Our staff were very clear about our attitude to Brexit, and we held an event asking our customers to read something in any European language they liked, including English. People came and read in German, Spanish, Italian, Irish, English and other languages under the banner "We're Not Leaving". But we lost that vote. The day after, staff put the kettle on, bought biscuits and re-arranged the shop putting chairs out - people poured in to share in the misery, to console themselves. Only now do we see how important that Brexit decision was. The shop remains committed to Europe, and to welcoming the stranger. We think most of our customers share that attitude. Most booksellers do as well.
I always come away with the impression that having that social mission is central to Five Leaves' existence: you have sections for environment, Black writers, LGBTQ+ and many more. How did the course of your life make you want to run a radical bookshop?
Our trade association, the Booksellers Association (BA), has a grant scheme for bookshops making environmental improvements and a few years ago, during Earth Strike Day, we closed, with our staff attending the Extinction Rebellion demonstration on full pay! During the summer in the wake of the murder of George Floyd - though bookshops were shuttered due to Covid - many indies put up Black Lives Matters window displays. Similarly, many indies had Pride window displays during Pride month - and some, in Abergavenny and Abingdon (for example) had quite a bit of pushback, but had the full support of the BA. In short, we are running with the tide of independent bookselling. We just maybe go a little bit further than some.
As to what led me to do it... I worked in bookselling before, in Mushroom Bookshop from 1979 to 1995 (it closed in 2000) and always wanted to have another go. Five Leaves Bookshop is, I suppose, a Mushroom Bookshop for modern times. As to bookselling... I trained as a librarian and a community worker. Maybe bookselling involves a bit of both. We've started using the phrase "changing the world, one book at a time" a little. Perhaps that's a mission statement.
We are running with the tide of independent bookselling. We just maybe go a little bit further than some
Let's say I'm a ruffian who could do with being changed one book at a time. What life-changing books have you been pressing into people's hands recently?
Of course, a ruffian has to want to be changed. But at the very least, this pile of books [pictured] will entertain, educate, open up the world...there's everything from images of women in art, to Nottingham gay life in the bad old days to speculative literature... and my favourite (I'm Scottish) - short stories from the Scottish diaspora in Canada. Read these 21 books and you will be a ruffian no longer. Or a better ruffian, possibly.
Thanks for your time Ross, it's been lovely to chat - congratulations for a remarkable ten years. What have you got in mind for the years to come?
Years to come? Well, it's hard to see beyond this autumn, where we have the usual wide range of events.... a Reading Proud day again, a Quaker and other faiths' seminar on racial justice are standouts. On the publishing side - which has been going since 1995 - we're bringing out a set of short stories set in Derby. Will anybody in Nottingham ever speak to us again?
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