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Max Minerva’s Marvellous Books: reviving Bristol’s independent bookshop culture

The triumph of e-commerce giants has triggered the decline of the independent shop, jeopardising the existence of local bookshops. Into this precarious environment entered the couple Jess Paul and Sam Taylor, who in 2018 took a calculated risk when they founded Max Minerva’s Bookshop.

By Milan Perera, Arts Critic Columnist

Whether we like it or not, Amazon has been an inescapable presence in our lives for the last 20 years. The soaring triumph of the e-commerce giant has triggered the decline and fall of the independent shop and has particularly jeopardised the existence of local bookshops. Why pay twice as much for a title when you can get it delivered to your door at a fraction of the price? Similarly, the invention of the Kindle has all but condemned physical books to oblivion. At the 2011 Fringe Festival, the author Ewan Morrison stated that ‘within 25 years, the digital revolution will bring about the end of paper books’.  Unsurprisingly, his pronouncement is beginning to look prophetic.

According to the Booksellers Association, in 1995 the UK had 1,894 independent bookshops. By 2016 this number had halved to just 867. Into this precarious environment entered the couple Jess Paul and Sam Taylor, who in 2018 took a calculated risk when they founded Max Minerva’s Bookshop in North View, Bristol. The premise they chose was particularly poignant, as it was the site of a bookshop that proudly stood for over 40 years before the shutters came down for good.

The front of Max Minerva's new premises | Epigram / Milan Perera

When I interviewed one half of the partnership, Sam Taylor, I asked him what made him open a bookshop in the first place, given that the prospects for the viability of independent bookshops currently look bleak. Playing the Devil’s Advocate, I asked him: ‘you must have been a pioneer or an absolute imbecile to start such a venture’. To which he burst out laughing and said ‘probably the latter!’ But Sam Taylor is nobody’s fool, utilising his background in creative arts and the record industry to inject some much-needed lifeblood into an ailing book trade. His creative output was deftly complimented by Jess Paul’s extensive experience in publishing, which includes helping to develop catalogues for the Singapore National Library.

When Max Minerva’s opened its doors to the local community in 2018 the overall response was warm and heartfelt. But just as the independent store was beginning to make steady progress in winning over the local community, whilst fending off retail colossi, the world came to a grinding halt: COVID-19! The pandemic, which many thought would be the last nail in the coffin for local, small scale businesses, in fact had the opposite effect: communities felt it was imperative to help small businesses. Max Minerva’s was in no shortage of well wishes from the community.

Max Minerva's co-founder Sam Taylor with illustrator Chris Wormell | Epigram / Milan Perera

For example, during December 2020, Max Minerva’s was sent into overdrive with ‘click and collect’ orders despite there being a national lockdown in place. Jess and Sam were pleasantly surprised by the warmth and the support of the local community, which they said they would ‘never take for granted’. When asked why they decided to move from their previous premises in North View, Taylor explained that the old premises were becoming too small for the burgeoning business and that there was an absence of a relaxing area where people could sit down and appreciate the spectacle in its full glory.

The new venue—located in Henleaze—is divided into three sections. One area can be used as a crèche, with another section that is dedicated to younger readers and a front section of the shop that is neatly arranged with a plethora of genres ranging from Young Adult Fiction to History and Politics.

Inside Max Minerva’s bookshop, Henleaze | Epigram / Milan Perera

Being a bibliophile, I could not resist the allure of freshly stacked books. After punching a hole of £23.99 in my wallet I was in seventh heaven. As I was about to pay, I bumped into an alumni of the University of Bristol and a contributor to Epigram, Anna Baker, who is a teacher and has been a regular customer at Max Minerva’s. When asked what it means to make a visit to a local bookshop, she said: ‘it’s an overall sensory experience. You can’t beat the smell of fresh ink on paper, can you?’.

Jess and Sam receive a large number of emails on book suggestions and gift ideas to which they dutifully respond, despite being inundated with other concerns. They love the ongoing rapport with their loyal clientele.

When I entered the premises, I was warmly greeted by our own Evelyn Heis who had just started working at Max Minerva’s and was being put through her paces. She was enjoying the new challenge. Playing the Devil’s Advocate again, I asked: ‘why do you want to sacrifice your Saturday working at a local bookshop?’. Her response captured what it means to have local bookstores despite the challenges they face on a daily basis. ‘Firstly, I’m an English student so it’s practically in my nature to love books and reading. I can’t imagine a better job than to be surrounded by something I love all day, and to have the opportunity to converse with customers about the books we liked or didn’t like, or even recommend some of my favourites—it’s a really precious experience. Working in a bookstore really warms your heart and it doesn’t feel like a job’.

As I was leaving I happened to catch a glimpse of the celebrated author and illustrator, Chris Wormell, who was painting a mural on the front window. I was mesmerised by the slick brush strokes of the master illustrator who was painting some unruly waves in blue. His latest book The Lucky Bottle was proudly on display. By the time I stepped outside, Wormell had finished his mural and it was a delight.

Chris Wormell | Epigram / Milan Perera
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Max Minerva’s is opening its second outlet in Portishead much to the delight of the local community. Sam Taylor and Jess Paul are upbeat and hugely optimistic about their new venture outside Bristol. I have no reason to doubt their optimism.

Featured Image: Epigram / Evelyn Heis

Will you be visiting Max Minerva’s new store?