A few years ago, Amber Harrison and Karen Brazier were both experiencing burnout in their respective careers. The neighbours turned friends worked long hours that often took them away from their beloved home town of Shaftesbury, Dorset.
They recognised in each other a sense of frustration that chasing career progression had not led to personal fulfilment. “Over a drink in the pub one evening, we started to sketch out what our ideal lifestyle might look like,” they said. “We knew we wanted to own a business in Shaftesbury that would allow us simple pleasures such as walking to work and feeling properly rooted in our town.”
Inspired by an old photograph at the pub, they decided to set up an independent bookshop together. Today, they are part of a growing number of female friendship duos who have similarly decided to follow their dreams of running bookshops that cater to local communities, women and under-represented minorities.
“The pandemic gave us the push we needed to take the leap of faith, providing definitive proof that life is anything but predictable,” they recalled. “Large booksellers have a great range, but for us the value is in introducing people to new titles along with our key themes of land, sea and self.”
The business has been a hit, with many following the pair’s journey on Instagram. “Visitors seem to delight in discovering us as they head down the cobbles to photograph the iconic view. We were thrilled when Stephen Moss described us as ‘maybe the world’s best bookshop’.”
Two other friends, Rosie May and Sarah Scales, also decided to open Juno Books, an intersectional feminist and queer bookshop in Sheffield, during lockdown.
“We were sitting in Sarah’s garden, drinking wine, missing community spaces and rethinking what we wanted to do with our lives if things ever got back to a semblance of normality,” they said. “We discovered we both nurtured a secret dream of running a very community-focused, inclusive bookshop. We wanted a bookshop to bring people together, something that seemed extra acute in the depths of the pandemic.”
The Juno Books manifesto states they will always carry a majority of books by women, queer people and marginalised communities. “A lot of customers are so delighted to have an actively queer, intersectional feminist space in the city that so clearly reflects their own experiences back to them that they get pretty emotional. We’ve had people crying in the young adult section about what it would have meant to them to have a space like this when they were a teenager. It’s a beautiful thing to be able to offer validation and comfort to people.”
In Birmingham, Catherine Gale and Clare Dawes met on a course on how to run a bookshop. “We both felt that our local area of Kings Heath would embrace an independent bookshop,” the pair, who live down the road from each other, said.
The Heath Bookshop is located on a pretty alleyway called Kings Court and has a curated stock of about 1,000 titles. Gale and Dawes serve drinks, host events including talks from authors and run a book club for about 60 people a month.
“We want our shop to be somewhere that people come and recognise themselves, but might also pick up something they haven’t seen before and be exposed to something new.”
As thanks, one of their regular customers, a poet, has written them a number of poems about the shop. Another, an artist, presented them with a drawing.
The key to forming a successful partnership, all the women said, was to be kind to one another and divide up tasks properly.
Christie Cluett and Sarah Balfour, who met at work and set up Bristol’s newest bookshop, The Small City Bookshop, said they had not put much thought into whether they were ready to commit to spending so much time together.
“But it’s worked out pretty well so far! There have been ups and downs, for sure – the endless panicked painting of bookshelves is something we still struggle to talk about – but we said right from the beginning we’d be honest with each other.
“Ultimately we’re book nerds who wanted to build a space dedicated to reading and stories. A place for everyone to have access to books, where we can spend our time talking incessantly about books all day long to whoever will listen.”
All of the stores are affiliated with Bookshop.org, an ethical book-buying website that supports independent bookshops. The website, which launched in the UK in November 2020, has generated over £2.7m for British independent bookshops.