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Village Bookstore: Community, DIY and Free WiFi

They’ve never been ones for running around making lots of noise, so it seems fitting that Village Bookstore should quietly and with little fuss turn two in December of 2014. Opening up an ambitious mere five days or so from Christmas Day in 2012, the store has gone from strength to strength, expanding their roster of regular mags and packing the shelves with zines and art theory and practice books both local and international.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetSoftly spoken owners Ben and Joe were students in Leeds, meeting through a mutual friend who was Village’s own third Beatle,  part of the initial idea but moving down to London before things truly took off. The remaining two found themselves frustrated by a certain attitude towards Leeds by its creative residents and student population.

“The whole thing was wanting to kinda encourage people to see Leeds less as a stop gap before you make the full move down to London,” explains Ben. “Because that just seems to be what happens. People do their degrees here then move to London to get a job. I guess we just wanted to have something that was an opportunity to get their work some exposure. That’s why we’ve got the gallery space and stock all the zines. We try to promote as much as we can work by people as northernly based as possible.”

Another major part was filling a big much-desired gap in the Leeds marketplace. Ben: “We were both really into zines but found it really frustrating that there was absolutely no where to go really up North. Magma was probably the closest thing we had to that, and that was in Manchester.”

“There was also the art market in the Merrion Centre, which was open once in a blue moon,” chips in Joe. “It only seemed to open when there was an event on.”

Before a physical home was even looked into, they started off with pop-up stalls at festivals and zine fairs, testing the waters and seeing what great work, known, heard of and unknown, was out there, collecting zines by artists who were different and just interested in being themselves. From this they formed a small initial curated collection of work they would sell.

“Getting the Megabus with a suitcase full of books was always fun,” Ben observed drily. “So we wanted something permanent, and something more in the city centre as well, so it could be right in everyone’s faces a little bit.”

After a year of searching for the right space and applying for financing, it happened. And over the intervening two years they have never stopped working on plans for steady expansion and development. As Ben put it, “Because we started with so little funding and stock, we’ve built up and up incrementally, just slowly bringing it up to the level we offer today. Me and Joe still don’t take any money out of it. Any money made goes straight back into it. If you came into the shop when it first opened, we had about thirty books in here?

“We had an idea at the start of the people we wanted to stock, so we called them, but the longer we’ve been open the more people have been getting in contact with us asking us to stock them. We get submissions from all over the place. And oddly people seem to think our opinion really matters. It’s crazy some of the places we get submissions from. It’s like, ‘How did you find out about us?'”

Joe: “Just some little shop in Leeds.”

“Yeah, we’ve got them from LA, Korea, Taiwan. It’s a bit crazy, really. But encouraging.”

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While expanding the store is important, they are just as concerned with developing the space as a whole. Not just wanting it to be a shop, they have always tried to make the space somewhere people would want to come to relax and hang out. Given some of their more niche wares, any regulars who become aware of each other will find themselves among kindred spirits when they pop in at the same time, having a chat as they browse and argue internally over whether they can afford Cereal Magazine and Kinfolk this week or not. The shop functions perfectly as a social hub.

As Ben recalls, “Part of the plan was to become a hub for that. When we actually put together our original business plan when we were trying to get finance, we did use that exact word, ‘hub’, probably about a million times. That’s part of our plan, to make this more of a casual hanging out space. So we’re moving things around to make a place you could come and sit, maybe buy a coffee, have a wander around.”

To that end, a rather beautiful coffee machine was installed, with help from Dave Olejnik of Laynes Espresso, meaning the lads are always ready to be serving up their coffee of choice, Workshop Coffee‘s ever evolving Cult Of Done roasts (version XVII these days), along with two time-absorbingly comfy sofas in the gallery space.

“And free WiFi,” adds Joe with a wry grin.

“Is that something we really need to mention? Put that as a headline. Big. FREE WIFI.”

This ethos of making a hangout space plus their keen interest in zines and the output of their own customer base has made them the heart of a little community of zine makers and photographers doing it themselves in the local community.

Ben: “What usually happens in a lot of cases, people come in with zines they’d like us to stock, and then two or three of them will come back, and keep coming back and we end up becoming friends. That was one of the things about doing the shop, making more friends interested in similar things.”

Joe: “It’s the only way we can make friends.”

Ben: “Especially with students, its great to see how many more come in and get chatting with us about how they’re producing their own work. We often go to many of the end of year exhibitions. And most definitely at last year’s photography exhibition, these guys had been coming to chat in the shop, and then at the show itself their work had really stood out. Not that we’d had anything to do with that really, but it was just nice to see that happening.”

Having never really spent money on advertising, Village’s success and solid core group of regulars is the result of their welcoming approach and nurturing sense of community. It’s all about the word of mouth. As Joe puts it, “People appreciate it and then share it.”

Ben: “Yeah, the more people come in here and like it, then the more people they tell. So get the place right and word spreads. So the gallery and exhibitions are gonna become a lot more developed, a lot more refined. We’re hoping to have a more structured programme with more workshops and more art and creative talks.

“Last year we had a couple. We had one of the editors from Intern giving a talk, and a talk for our Female Gaze exhibition. We had an exhibition of female photographers, and then we had a live discussion as to whether having a gender-specific curation is acceptable. Was it necessary to have female-only curation in this day and age and if it is why is it still necessary? So a lot more things like that.”

Joe: “A lot more considered things than just making it look pretty on a wall. Though of course still plenty of that as well.”

There are plenty of plans for the space this year, but they’re keeping their cards close to their chests and getting them more fleshed out before they say anything. “Because, knowing us…” Very knowing looks are quickly exchanged, “We like to think things through a lot,” smiles Joe.

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While it’s been two years with a lot of hard work, Leeds as a city seems especially receptive for new businesses, especially independents, and always has a few gaps in the market for those willing to take the risk to plug it. It is almost comical in hindsight that the gap Ben and Joe identified for a magazine and zine store was filled rather rapidly, as within a month both Village and the similarly minded Colours May Vary opened, both of them offering magazines and zines of a kind Leeds until then had no permanent physical location to buy from. However, rather than be direct competition, and Ben and Joe are keen to say they don’t think of them as such in the slightest, the side practices and extra offerings alongside this core business differentiate the two enough for them to both attract different albeit similar customer bases while still offering something the other doesn’t. On many a day I’ve wandered round both in search of some semi-specific something happy knowing that if one didn’t have it the other more than likely would. This is something that recurs throughout Leeds’ independent businesses, and has helped Leeds develop such a strong supportive community of independents.

“It really is a community, it’s not about competing with each other. The coffee shop example’s good. If you’re introduced to artisan coffee by Mrs. Atha’s, say, it doesn’t mean you’re always going to go Mrs. Atha’s. It’s more like, I’m into artisan coffee now so I’ll go try Laynes, see what they’re doing. It’s about having more similar businesses catering to the same city via different approaches. It increases attention and interest in that thing, which gets more people interested and involved. It’s beneficial for everyone.

“People seem to be happy to do things just because they want to see it happen in Leeds. It’s not about just themselves. If something new pops up and does well, it’s beneficial for the whole community. Leeds has really come along since we came to uni here. It used to be a bit of a ghost town, but now there’s stuff popping up everywhere. It’s come a long way.”

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There is something of a boom in independent publishing at the moment, with a stronger sense amongst the buying public that going local is the right thing to do. Compared to Village’s first true Christmas period in 2013, it was really encouraging to find that just a year on in 2014 a real difference was palpable. Rather than feeling like they were trying to convince people to buy a photo book or a zine, this time around it was more a case of people seeking out particular things. The advent of such collections in the mainstream, largely through their being stocked predominantly in the lifestyle section of brands such as Urban Outfitters, has generated a greater interest in suchlike. As they still have limited stock, they become a force for good in making consumers look to formerly considered as niche small businesses to find more specific items.

“Anything that gets people into photography and photobooks is a good thing,” Ben agrees. “I mean, photobooks have always been a big thing since the 1960s, but it definitely seems its become more at the forefront of people’s interests than it ever has been. It’s gradually getting less niche. Magazine wise it seems a new one is popping up every week which is great to see. And about nicher and nicher things as well.

“We’re riding this wave, this boom in independent publishing, and of course we’re hoping its gonna be here a good while but we’re also going to make sure that we’re a permanent fixture so even if it collapses we’re still here along with all the people with a genuine interest, with a lasting interest in it. A core few that remain.

“We need to make sure we’re always keeping on top of what’s relevant, what’s new, and see how it goes from there.”

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With that in mind, they keep an interested friendly eye on like-minded local enterprises, and with their gallery space are active in highlighting the outpouring of this wave of creative fervour. Opening on Thursday 12th February is the northern launch of new zine American Wet Dream from two of their friends, Jønas Åndy and Arch Er, published through Ditto Press.  Both did seperate trips with two bands touring America, documenting and taking photographs. Despite not interacting, as two British guys thus versed in that school of thought they’d independently approached it the same way, so the two sets of photographs came together nicely, complimenting and contrasting each other.

Joe knows them both well. “They’ve self-published for a long time but recently the publishers have approached them to produce some work, so there’s a choice to make and they took the next step up. It’s nice to celebrate that fact.”

And in keeping with their community spirit, they are always quick to mention events elsewhere in the city.

Joe is quick to promote Assembly House, a previously abandoned textile mill along the Leeds-Liverpool canal taken over by some Leeds art graduates and converted into a stunning studio and gallery space up in Armley. Having accidentally stumbled onto their opening night while wandering aimlessly in the area, we were glad to hear of their continuing success. For his money’s worth, there’s also a new art space in Set The Controls For The Heart Of The Sun more towards the city centre, built in an old gallery space but expanding out into studios as well.

Ben meanwhile has been following  The Plant Room with great interest. “They’re doing plant-based installations, with a potter doing the ceramics and working prints around it all. It’s about making plants that work with the space. They’ve just started up.” Expect to hear more about them soon, then.

Processed with VSCOcam with a6 presetBoth are also good buddies with The Tall Boys lads, one of our favourite new independents from 2014. With their first exhibition coming up very soon on Thursday 5th February highlighting the work of northern realist photography group Broth Tarn, you can expect plenty of good exposure for local and northern creatives across the expanse of Leeds.

“There’s always so many things coming up in Leeds, it’s hard to keep track. It’s pretty great.”

2015 is already shaping up to be a great year for art showings and events in Leeds. And don’t be surprised to find Ben and Joe hanging out there, with Village Bookstore and its gallery space at the centre of plenty of it.