Written evidence submitted by the Booksellers Association (VTR0023)


[Note: This evidence has been redacted by the Committee. Text in square brackets has been inserted where text has been redacted.]


About the Booksellers Association


  1. The Booksellers Association (BA) is a trade association, currently with 854 bookselling businesses in membership (as at December 2020), accounting in total for 4,764 outlets. BA members cover a diverse range of different bookselling businesses - specialist bookselling chains (e.g. Waterstones and Blackwells); 897 independent bookshops; large high street chains with mixed businesses (e.g. W H Smith); supermarkets; library and school suppliers; national book wholesalers , and non-traditional businesses like the National Trust.


  1. Whilst we welcome the opportunity to respond to the Select Committee’s Call for Evidence it has unfortunately clashed with our members’ busiest trading time as well as various lockdown changes. This means we haven’t been able to carry out a survey of our entire membership to help inform our response. However we do have several pieces of anecdotal evidence which we believe highlight some areas of concern that are unique to booksellers and their retail environment. As such our response will focus on these specific types of violent and threatening incidences that we feel are of specific concern to bookshops rather than perhaps some of the more “generic” violence that impacts the retail sector as a whole. The booksellers involved in these examples have asked to remain anonymous as some fear that speaking out will result in further abuse.


Violence and Abuse in Bookshops


  1. The bookseller experience on violence differs somewhat to the experience of others in the retail sector as it tends to focus on the products bookshops do sell rather than as result of the refusal to sell products, such as alcohol, which leads to abusive behaviour in other shops.


  1. Over recent years the BA has seen an uptake in what can be described as “politically motivated” abuse directed towards booksellers, particularly those who work in independent bookshops. As small business owners, independent booksellers are very often at the heart of their communities, have a big local social media presence and offer many services that go beyond selling reading material (such as running book groups and social events in their shops). These activities can sometimes result in booksellers becoming involved in local or national campaigns where they are seen to voice political views. Sadly, this has resulted in instances of abuse.


  1. This has been most pronounced following the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement last year. Last summer, following the protests, the bestsellers list was dominated by books written by black authors. Many bookshops across the country stocked these books and had them on prominent display, both to attract customers and to show support for the movement.  One bookseller has shared with us their experience of a woman walking past their shops who became angry and shouted 'White Lives Matter'.  The bookseller was initially confused and opened the door of the shop whereby the passer-by vehemently said 'They're forcing white women to kneel - get on your knees - you're scum you are - you're white scum - get on your knees.’. This was followed by further abuse and the police were called. They took a statement from the bookseller and a neighbouring shopkeeper who was subjected to similar abuse but the police declined to press charges.


  1. In another example a bookseller told us, “I received an email from someone I can only assume is a white supremacist accusing me of virtue signalling for having two books about racism in the window and calling me a stupid feminist moron. I didn’t reply to the email and blocked the sender. I did forward it to the police but said that I didn’t need a response, I was just keeping them in the loop for info in case the situation escalated, which it didn’t.


  1. That experience was by no means uncommon and several other booksellers have told us they received written threats posted through their shops’ letterboxes as well as “warnings” from customers that prominently displaying titles by black authors would result in bricks being thrown through their windows.


  1. Similar issues were also reported by booksellers around the EU referendum, with one bookseller arriving at their shop the day after the referendum to find a large amount of human faeces and toilet paper on the doorstep. They had openly supported the ‘Remain’ campaign in the run-up to the referendum. Their [European] neighbour also received a threatening anonymous letter. The police were called and given what had happened to their neighbour the bookseller wished to report it as a hate crime. The police said they lacked the resources to send anyone out to initiate any further investigation.


  1. As a trade association we also represent a number of Christian bookshops. One of our Christian bookshops had a sustained period of harassment from a local man who would regularly enter the shop drunk and shout abuse about God. If the booksellers engaged him in discussion he became more verbally abusive and they had a real fear he would become physically violent as on one occasion he picked confectionary off the counter and threw it at staff. It reached the stage that the workers kept a lookout and locked the door on his approach, which was both stressful for staff and off-putting for potential customers. The police were called on one occasion and an officer didn’t visit until several days after the incident.


  1. Anecdotally, our members have been telling us these issues have been worsening in recent years, perhaps reflective of the polarised political climate. This is particularly impacting booksellers who specialise in political books. One bookseller told us, “We sell a range of political satire including ’The Beautiful Poetry of Donald Trump’ by Rob Sears which is usually in our window and attracts all sorts of attention. In [autumn] 2020 a lady came in to read it and questioned my colleague’s sexuality. She came back the following week to spit into the Donald Trump book. She also spat into the doorway of the Mexican shop opposite us. The lady returned again the week after and was seen to have a knife with which she scratched our shop door before we were open, she then overturned some benches in the street and threatened another shopkeeper with the knife.” The booksellers didn’t contact the police in the first few instances as they didn’t want to waste their time but they were called by another shopkeeper following the incident with the knife.





Need For a New Offence


  1. As well as providing entertainment, the purpose of books is to educate and expose readers to new perspectives. This can lead to robust debates taking place within bookshops and that is not something that booksellers shy away from. However, we are seeing far too many instances of booksellers being threatened and intimidated because of the types of material they sell and this is simply unacceptable.


  1. We believe that a new offence is needed to protect booksellers and other retail workers. It could be argued that a lot of the abuse currently suffered by booksellers is already covered by legislation, including by the Equality Act. Yet from what the BA has been hearing from its membership, the police do not seem to be adequately reacting to this abuse. A specific new offence would make it clear to victims, offenders, police, and the wider criminal justice system on how they should charge, prosecute, convict and sentence offenders, leading to more appropriate punishments and restoring justice for victims. It will also likely lead to an increase in the reporting of instances of abuse as booksellers would feel more empowered to contact the police and feel more likely to be taken seriously. No one deserves to feel threatened for just doing their job.

January 2021