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Gloucester Road Books: the bookshop putting Bristol first

Gloucester Road Books, owned by experienced bookseller Tom Robinson, has gained huge traction in the Bristol community for its unique stock and important presence in one of the most popular student locations in the city.

By Flossie Palmer, Features Editor

Renowned for being the longest road of independent shops in the UK, Gloucester Road has finally welcomed its first independent bookshop back to the area after over a decade without one. Despite only opening in April this year, Gloucester Road Books, owned by experienced bookseller Tom Robinson, has gained huge traction in the Bristol community for its unique stock and important presence in one of the most popular student locations in the city.

Gloucester Road Books opened on Thursday 15 April just in time for the lifting of Coronavirus restrictions on April 12, which saw the re-opening of non-essential retail. Despite Tom planning to carry out a ‘soft launch’ so that he could learn how to use the till and gradually adapt into his new, shop-owner role, he explained to Epigram that ‘it just didn’t really turn out that way.’ The building anticipation of easing lockdown restrictions, and excitement from the local community over the return of book-shopping to Gloucester Road meant that there were queues for most of the day.

'Inside of Gloucester Road Books' | Tom Robinson

Despite the busyness of opening day, Tom reported that ‘it was pretty amazing! People were really lovely and willing to wait while I worked out how to do stuff!’. The reaction from the Bristol community to the opening of Gloucester Road Books has been overwhelmingly positive, with other Bristol-based independent bookshops such as Storysmith’s and Max Minerva’s sending their support and welcoming another ‘indie’ to the community.

‘It’s been amazing, it’s been fantastic!’ Tom beamed, ‘They’ve been super welcoming and enthusiastic! Almost everyone who has walked through the door has said “welcome to the road” and “it’s been so long since we’ve had a bookshop” or “it’s such an important place for a bookshop.” It’s made a really big difference in making me feel welcome and at ease in what I’m doing. It’s really valuable.’

After moving to Bristol three years ago, Tom noticed the bookshop-shaped hole in the heart of Gloucester Road, alongside the necessity for more independent bookshops across the wider Bristol community. ‘When I was first looking at sites for the shop, I couldn’t really believe that there wasn’t a bookshop on this road,’ he explained. Tom’s work on the lease for 184 Gloucester Road, now known as Gloucester Road Books, began in January 2020. However, the Coronavirus pandemic, followed by a swift four-month lockdown, quickly put any progress on hold.

Despite this unavoidable set back, Tom persisted with his passion project by continuing his work towards the eventual opening day. In fact, Gloucester Road Books is infused with Tom’s own personality, as its shelves, desk and paper racks are all handmade by Tom himself. ‘It has a lot of me in it’, Tom explained, ‘it’s got a lot of blood, sweat and tears in it!’

Even Tom’s approach to bookselling reflects the more personal nature of the bookshop itself. For example, Tom doesn’t sub-divide the non-fiction books he stocks as specifically as chain, high-street bookshops. Instead, you can find more unique categories such as ‘People and Culture’, which includes non-fiction books ranging from psychology and sociology to essay writing. Similarly, Tom’s ‘Time and Place’ section encompasses history, travel literature, reportage and geography books.

The beauty of not complying to the chain seller approach of sub-dividing is that it allows the browser to explore more books within similar genres and topics, giving them greater access to more options and opening gateways to new interests. Tom has also featured a selection of books published by independent presses in a push to encourage readers to find something new and outside of their comfort zone. Although it may be easy to resort to The Sunday Times bestseller list – which Tom also stocks – an overlooked independent press may be harbouring your next hidden gem.

'The shelves of Gloucester Road Books, including categories such as 'People & Culture' and 'Time and Place'' | Tom Robinson

Alongside Tom’s unique organisation of the shop, his stock caters to the needs and interests of the city itself. ‘The flavour of the shop and the stock profile of the shop reflects the place its in, or at least my interpretation of it,’ Tom explained, ‘The stock that I’ve chosen are books that I think people here will be interested in. I think they’ll love them and be fascinated by them. I think there will be books to challenge them and books that they’ll enjoy, and that wouldn’t be quite the same anywhere else.’

After a year of fluctuating Coronavirus restrictions unexpectedly forcing the UK in and out of lockdown, there has been a resurgence of support for independent businesses, as the pandemic has brought what really matters to light - the importance of personal touch and community, especially during desperate measures. Tom has incorporated this intimate aspect directly into Gloucester Road Books by treating his customers as his neighbours, developing a stock profile and atmosphere which caters to the Bristol community.

He has also recognised the importance of independent bookshops in Bristol, as they ‘reflect the attitude of the city.’ ‘You know what Bristol is like!’ he exclaimed, ‘It’s independent minded and people are very supportive of independent businesses. There’s people who tell me they’re just so delighted they don’t have to order stuff online anymore because they’ve got a local shop.’

While innovating a new customer approach to book-shopping through his category division and stock profile, Tom also poses a huge challenge to his main competitor – Amazon. During the digital age, where ‘every bookshop is fighting against Amazon and other online retailers, it’s not quite the same here,’ Tom claims. Nevertheless, Tom is able to meet Amazon Prime delivery demands by also offering next-day delivery on hundreds of thousands of books to fulfil even the most obscure of customer requests, the history of Burma being provided by Tom as a perfect example. During the pandemic, with the experience of in-person shopping constantly under threat, Gloucester Road Books has made it even easier to support independent businesses in a time of need.

Despite Gloucester Road Books overthrowing the stereotypical approach to bookselling set by high-street bookshops, Tom values his 14 years of experience in chain booksellers, both in London and Bristol, as an important starting point in his journey to become an independent bookseller. His lack of control over merchandising and deciding what books to stock in chain bookshops sowed the seed which eventually grew into Gloucester Road Books. ‘The more I went on, the more I realized I wanted to do things a different way’, Tom admitted. However, ‘I don’t think I’d be in this position if I hadn’t put in the years that I had, working for other booksellers,’ he explained, ‘I don’t know how I’d be doing this if I hadn’t had that experience.’

Beyond his individual experiences and hard work, Tom also acknowledges the important part his supporting team played in successfully bringing Gloucester Road Books from his imagination into reality. After running into obstacles such as negotiating a lease, which he had ‘never thought about in my life!’, Tom praised those who helped him make the dream work; ‘I was able to find good people to work with on each of the steps – a professional solicitor who communicated really well, an amazing builder, a fantastic carpenter, a really great electrician. I was really lucky that they were all fantastic!’

In an age where running your own business is often glorified in the eyes of social media, Tom dispelled the romanticism of being ‘self-made’, encouraging the normalisation of asking for help to become successful. ‘I was really happy to take advice and listen to people,’ he began, ‘I was aware of where my knowledge was and where it wasn’t, and not to push against someone who has experience in a field that I know nothing about just because I might have an idea about something.’ Despite Gloucester Road Books originating from Tom's own heart, it is also comprised of passion from the wider Bristol community, down to the very building work and electrics it relies on to Tom’s handmade shelves of carefully chosen books.

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While it is certainly true that while Gloucester Road Books has filled the bookshop shaped hole in the heart of a geographical landmark for student life, it can also be said that it has also filled an even more important gap in the publishing industry. With his more personalised approach to bookselling, from his unique shelving categories down to the Bristol population his stock profile caters for, Tom Robinson is paving the way for a more innovative, personal approach to finding your next pastime.

Featured Image | Tom Robinson

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