Bookseller of the Month:
No Alibis, Belfast
83 Botanic Avenue, BelfastBT7 1JL
Every month, as part of the new CWA Booksellers Champion initiative, we want to celebrate a bookshop because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive. August’s CWA Bookseller of the Month is No Alibis in Belfast.
Overview by William Shaw
Next year No Alibis bookshop in Belfast will celebrate twenty-five years in the business. ‘Good God,’ exclaims owner David Torrans, shocked at the calculation. ‘You get a shorter sentence for murder.’
He’s joking, because one thing that shines through everything he says is Torrans’ passion books, though he’s also the first to admit that keeping No Alibis going over the years has sometimes not been easy. The legendary Botanic Avenue bookshop has long been known as a champion of great crime fiction in all shapes and sizes, and from all corners of the world.
Torrans went to Queens University Belfast in his mid-twenties, becoming a bookseller at the university’s bookshop at the age of 27. When the bookshop charged him with broadening their range of genre novels – science fiction and crime in particular – he discovered a talent. After seven years there he decided to go out on his own in 1997 and sank every penny he had into opening No Alibis.
What was the shop before he moved in? ‘It was a dry cleaners.’
Bit of a refit then?
He laughs. ’Very much a refit. We built most of the bookcases ourselves. I sold a lot of my first editions at the time to raise money. Raymond Chandlers’s Killer in the Rain paid for quite a few bookshelves. Some early Lawrence Block. A couple of early Ian Rankin which I wish I’d kept now, but there you go. I hired myself out as a labourer because we didn’t want to pay too much money but even back then it still cost me the guts of thirty grand to set the place up.’
It was Torrans’ knowledge of genre fiction that got the shop up and running.
‘When we opened, sixty to seventy percent of the shop was crime, but one thing I realised was that Belfast was not big enough to have a shop like Jakubowski’s Murder One in London.’
The shop has expanded over the years in the range of material it stocks, with crime now making up roughly a third of the stock, but there’s still an expertise at work in the shop that he’s proud of.
‘We knew pretty quickly there was no point trying to compete with Amazon. What we can do is provide insight and experience. I can tell someone who likes Val McDermid or Michael Connelly about books I know they’ll like which might not even be crime fiction.’
Alongside the bookshop, he runs the imprint No Alibis, whose first title was Gerald Brennan’s locally set novel Disorder, which is typical of the kind of book Torrans champions; a book inspired by Dashiell Hammett yet which doesn’t quite fit into the crime genre.
Lockdown was a test of No Alibi’s adaptability. It was particularly crushing for Northern Ireland. ‘We weren’t even allowed to do click and collect.’
What he learned from the long episode was the loyalty he had built over the years. ‘We found that people were coming to us instead of going to Amazon. They were very supportive. And when we re-opened, there was a palpable sense of joy. “Oh my goodness. We can meet the people we were speaking to on the phone.” You don’t get that looking at a computer screen.’
Its legendary book events at the shop are sadly a thing of the past for now. The last was Jane Harper, just before lockdown.
‘She was absolutely fantastic, amazing. We used to have sixty people in the shop. We were full at every event. That’s what made it so exciting. But that’s just not going to happen, not for a while.’
Of all the crime writers he’s met, who is his favourite?
‘So many of them. You know the old adage, never meet your heroes? Not the case. In all honesty, I have never been disappointed.’
No Alibis, 83 Botanic Avenue, Belfast BT7 1JL
Tel: 028 9031 9601
Bookshop of the Month: The Steyning Bookshop
106 High Street, Steyning, West Sussex BN44 3RD
Every month, as part of the new CWA Booksellers Champion initiative, we want to celebrate a bookshop because we believe bookshops don’t just sell our books – they bring our streets alive. Kicking this off is July’s CWA Bookshop of the Month, The Steyning Bookshop, opened in 1984 by Sara and Robin Bowers.
Overview by William Shaw
In the thirty-eight years since The Steyning Bookshop opened its doors, in a quiet market town nestling in a gap in the South Downs, it’s become central to the community, championing efforts to bring the high street alive. An example of how bookshops punch above their weight, it’s had a major impact on the small town. People like the best-selling children’s author, Julia Donaldson, moved to Steyning mainly because she’d visited its bookshop so often – and when the local Post Office closed, it was Donaldson who followed the bookshop’s example, by buying it to keep it open. Bookshops change places.
With her third child about to start school, Sara was facing the option of returning to her job as a school teacher. Instead, inspired by a friend who had opened The Forest Bookshop (now sadly defunct) in the Forest of Dean, she decided on opening bookshop herself, although neither had any experience of the book trade.
“This big old eighteenth century house, which was crumbling and falling apart, came up in the High Street. We bought it at auction and converted it into a bookshop and family house,” explains Sara. It was, she admits, a learning curve.
On their bookseller friend’s advice, they stocked the bookshop using what was then a newfangled idea – a book distributor. At the time, Gardners was largely pooh-poo-ed by other bookshops. “In those days, publishers thought they were doing you a favour by getting you a book in about three weeks. It took an eternity.” Instead, they used a system that was, back then, mostly used by newsagents, but which has since become the norm.
“At the beginning it was all ‘how-to’ books; gardening, DIY and Delia Smith,” remembers Sara, who still runs the shop with her husband and their daughter, Gudrun. Over years, they’ve built an audience for fiction, and crime fiction, by reviewing books in the local magazine and running their own book group and monthly newsletter. More recently, a major key to building their audience has been events. “Right up into the 90s, publishers thought we were too small to have important visitors,” says Sara, wryly.
A chance visit by the sister of Louis de Bernières, author of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin, led to a bookshop visit, then a sold-out reading. From there, events took off. They’ve hosted major crime figures, including everyone from Robert Goddard, Peter May and Mark Billingham.
“One of our high spots was having Ian Rankin. We won him in a competition. We had to say what we’d do with him if we had him for a day and we said we’d take him to our local microbrewery and have an event there, then bring him back here for tea and cake, then have an evening event. I think we had him at the microbrewery,” says Sara.
Their most popular crime authors are Peter May and CWA Booksellers Champion Elly Griffiths, who’ve both done events for them. “People love reading crime writers who set books in their locale. People love working their way round a town, recognising a familiar landscape. You’d think it would be more unnerving!”
Advice for authors wanting local bookshops to stock them?
Sara warns that local bookshops select books very cautiously. “People trust us about our content and we have to be careful what we stock.” She says that, though she’ll accept almost anything that has local interest, she can’t simply take a book because someone’s written it. And one more thing: if you do claim to be a local writer, but you haven’t visited the shop before, or, as Sara puts it, even bought a single sheet of wrapping paper from them, don’t expect her to embrace your work.
We ask her what her high point has been. “Every day,” she answers. “When it comes to writers, we’re still such groupies. It all seems such a treat.”
Mon – Sat: 10am – 5:30pm
Booksellers Champion: Elly Griffiths
You may have heard that I have been appointed the CWA’s Booksellers Champion. I almost expect this role to come with an outfit of some sort, including a cape. I will not be alone in the task, however, and I am pleased to say that I will be part of a triumvirate with fellow superheroes, William Shaw and Vaseem Khan.
There are several things we can all do to support our local booksellers which, in turn, may encourage them to support us. For example, make a visit to your local bookshop. They will love to see you. Take a photo of yourself there and post it on social media with the caption #thecwalovesbookshops. Find out if your local bookshop stocks your books. If they do, offer to sign them. If they don’t, they may change their minds after seeing your lovely face. Also, when you post buying links, be sure to add bookshop.org as well as (or even instead of) Amazon. It will help to support local bookshops, many of whom are struggling right now.
We will be in touch soon to talk about other ways in which CWA members can support booksellers and encourage them to support us.
Download posters for your bookshop
Margery Allingham Short Mystery Prize 2022; opens 1 October 2021. Revisit for the poster later this summer
Debut Dagger 2022; opens 1 October 2021. Revisit for the poster later this summer.
The CWA strongly believes in local booksellers and works where it can to support and encourage their work.
We do this in several ways.
1. By fostering communication and cooperation to mutual benefit between CWA author members and bookshops. In 2017 we appointed a Booksellers Champion in Aline Templeton to initiate, oversee and liaise wherever we can.
How does this work? On a practical level, if you’d like a crime writer to talk at an event at your bookshop, we’ll do our best to find you one. If you’re already holding an event with a CWA member participating and you would like us to help promote it, let us know (with as much notice as possible) and, where appropriate, we will publicise it to our members and also to our thousands of Crime Readers’ Association subscribers. We also work wherever we can to support bookshops and are open to hearing your views of how we can do that.
2. National Crime Reading Month. The CWA’s initiative promotes events and reading projects that happen in June. Bookshops as well as libraries are major hosts when they’re not online.
We have a dedicated webpage for this where events are listed according to geographical region. If you’re looking for an author, suggestions on how to set up an event or publicity for an event you already have planned: contact us.
3. Literature that’s connected with the CWA that you and your customers might also find useful.
We can supply digital posters and flyers for you to use in your book shop, helping to make you more indispensable than ever to the aspiring writer and the public at large.
4. Competitions that support writers. For example, the CWA Margery Allingham Short Story competition, and the Debut Dagger competition for the opening of a crime novel from an unpublished writer.
Keep in touch
Interested in receiving more information about the CWA, National Crime Writing Month and useful news for booksellers? We only send out very occasional bulletins so you won’t be inundated with emails. Sign up below – thank you.
You might also be interested in the CRA site: www.thecra.co.uk . Here you can find out more about our authors’ books and sign up for bimonthly Case Files and the regular CRA newsletter.