Manchester’s independent bookshop renaissance

When Magma shut its doors on Oldham street almost two years ago, after serving Manchester’s creatives, students and book lovers for almost 20 years, many felt as if a part of the city’s heart had been lost.

Tim Bell managed the shop from 2008 and he tells me about the challenges the independent magazine industry faced. “It’s always changing,” he says. “What was popular when Magma first opened is not the same kind of publication that’s popular now. You don’t have magazines that shift tens of thousands of copies anymore. It’s smaller quantity, smaller volume.”

UNITOM | Photo: Morys Davies

But, as one door sadly closed, many others have opened.

UNITOM opened on Stevenson Square a year after Magma closed. The welcoming shop floor invites customers to stick around and enjoy the shop’s cosy corners and armchairs. Tim – not quite ready to leave the world of magazines behind – is the manager. 

UNITOM | Photo: Morys Davies

“The original goal was for it to be a commercial gallery under the name ‘Universal Tomorrow’, with a small retail element attached,” he says. “When the gallery space fell through, we pushed on with the retail aspect and this location came up.”

The influence of the original gallery idea is clear in the shop’s high ceilings and white walls which exhibit local artwork.

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Books and magazines, however, are still the priority. In an ever-shifting industry, Tim says that “the more locally produced publications we can stock and encourage people to make, the better.” UNITOM recently held a collaborative event with Salford University’s fashion image-making and styling course. “Anything we can engage with that encourages students and local artists, all the better,” he says.

“The number of conversations I’ve had with people who are delighted that they can be back out, seeing and feeling physical things again; I’ve had some weird and wonderful conversations with people since opening about the projects they’ve been working on or something they’ve seen,” Tim says. 

UNITOM | Photo: Morys Davies

This is something that we’ve missed out on in the last couple of years: the social element of destination retailing. The opportunity to talk to like-minded people and the sensation of browsing through physical magazines can’t be replicated online.

Nobody understands this better than Joe Torr, co-founder of Village Books, which opened a Manchester shop in October 2021 on Oldham Street. “Retail has had to change to be an experience because you can’t compete with online,” he says. “You’re always going to find something cheaper and you can always get it quicker online than you will in a brick and mortar store.”

Village Books | Photo: Morys Davies

“You need to offer something different,” he says. “You need to build a community around what you do.”

This is what Village set out to do: expanding from their Leeds shop which has been operating for over a decade. They saw an opportunity to become part of a city that, according to Joe, is “culturally important worldwide.”

Village Books | Photo: Morys Davies

Village has a raw, DIY aesthetic in comparison to the pristine UNITOM, thanks to its scaffolding shelving holding a mix of magazines, books and small press. It offers a niche selection of photography, fashion and counter-culture publications as well as more recognisable art, music and fashion titles. The focus is very much on the fringes of society in their selection. 

The shop has already established itself within Manchester’s creative community, hosting exhibitions and launch nights for local publishers like Waiting Room Press.

Village Books | Photo: Morys Davies

“These spaces are integral in that they give people an opportunity to display their work in the real world for others to see,” Joe says.

I ask why Village chose Manchester. “It’s got such importance in its history, but also you can see the younger generation here are doing some really incredible stuff that we wanted to be part of and help incubate,” he says.

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Village plans to transform its basement space into a gallery and provide opportunities to local artists and creatives. 

The first bookshop to arrive in the wake of Magma was Queer Lit, who were thriving online throughout lockdown. Located on Tib Street, the bookshop has the most traditional aesthetic of Manchester’s new arrivals, styled after a gentleman’s office with neatly organised sections and classic bookshelves in moss green. 

Queer Lit | Photo: Morys Davies

Matthew Cornford, who owns the store, wants to provide a safe space for the city’s queer community as well as supply queer literature. It’s the ‘sober heart’ of Manchester’s queer scene and has become home to queer people who “struggle to find places outside of the Gay Village where they can feel comfortable and safe.” 

Queer Lit has also been working with schools, donating thousands of books to help educate and inform. “We get to engage with young teens who aren’t meeting people like themselves who may be struggling at school with their identity,” Matthew says.

Queer Lit | Photo: Morys Davies

“It has allowed us to engage with our community and get a better understanding of what they want from us and how to engage with them more directly,” Matthew says. The shop plans to use its downstairs space for book clubs, poetry meetings, writing classes and life drawing.

These spaces not only give people a chance to get lost in the joy of a physical bookshop, but also provide a welcoming space for their local community; helping people feel like they are part of something bigger than themselves. What the city looks like as it goes through an intense period of change will be influenced by these bookshops and the ideas and creations that are born in them.