A radical bookshop, which has just been award-nominated for the fourth year running, is the epicentre of Nottingham’s “contrarian and egalitarian” literary scene. From its loyal customers to its nationwide events, Lucy Pegg explores Five Leaves Bookshop and the city’s counter-cultural literature community.
Standing in Old Market Square, it might not feel like a bustling literary world is close at hand.
But if you head down an alleyway next to a games arcade, and stroll past some industrial wheelie bins, you’ll find a unique bookshop that’s on a mission to change the world.
Five Leaves Bookshop doesn’t just trade in books. As a radical bookseller, the mission statement goes much further – they use literature as a driver of progressive political action.
Their shelves heave with titles on issues as broad as queer culture, spirituality, the Roma community, Jewish interests and good old-fashioned socialism.
To call it a cacophony of outsider voices might actually be an understatement.
It’s an eclectic mix that has found love from customers and critics alike.
Five Leaves have just made the regional shortlist for the British Book Awards Independent Bookshop of the Year for the fourth year running.
In fact, they brought home the national prize last year, being named the best independent in the business.
For Leah, a bookseller and events manager at Five Leaves, the awards have been a chance to amplify the shop’s work, both in Nottingham and further afield.
“We’ve had a lot of favourable press since it happened and an increase in customers, in sales, in people coming to our events,” she says.
“We’ve had a lot of support from Nottingham people in general.”
Not that Five Leaves was lacking in ardent fans before it won critical acclaim.
Their events regularly sell out and if you spend just ten minutes in the shop and you’ll see someone popping in for a chat with one of the booksellers.
Leah agrees and says: “We’ve got a core base of customers who buy books here and will only buy books here, who will source books from other places and then buy them here.
“We haven’t got favourites – but we’ve got regulars, I suppose that’s the right way of putting it,” she adds with a smile.
It’s clear that community is at the heart of Five Leaves’ ethos.
Books are the medium of choice, but the focus is helping people, whether that be highlighting injustice, preaching inclusivity or bridging gaps between cultures.
That’s why Leah believes Five Leaves is so important.
“Conversations and protest need to happen and this is a safe space where people can come and do that without fear of reprisal,” she says.
“We pride ourselves on being LGBTQ friendly and this is a safe space for people who are trans to come and talk.”
Though the bookshop opened in 2013, Five Leaves have been publishing books since 1996.
Over 200 titles have now made their way off their printing presses, from A Brief History of Whistling to The Anarchist Past and Other Essays.
With these volumes in the hands of readers across the world, the press is just one way Five Leaves makes an impact outside Nottinghamshire.
The shop have also organised the Feminist Book Fortnight since 2018, a nationwide campaign which runs in over 50 independent bookshops and libraries across the country.
From Glasgow to the Isle of Man, Five Leaves is helping Nottingham make its mark on the written world.
In fact, Five Leaves is just part of Nottingham’s “flowering” literary renaissance since the 2000s, according to David Belbin, a novelist who has lived in the city for over 40 years.
Though Lord Byron of Newstead Abbey shocked Regency England and Eastwood-bred DH Lawrence’s orgasmic novels left him facing an obscenity trial, Nottingham hasn’t shouted its radical literary heritage as loudly as other cities have.
But after becoming a UNESCO City of Literature in 2015 – one of only 28 across the globe – that has begun to change.
“We still feel like underdogs in Nottingham, but now we’re world class underdogs,” says David, who led the campaign for Nottingham’s bookish title and chairs the Nottingham City of Literature organisation.
David says the city’s character is “contrarian and egalitarian”, and it’s clear that world acclaim has not dampened this.
“As a City of Lit, we’re unique in putting a focus on literacy,” he explains.
“When I told the other cities of lit that we were committed to this, I was told it was too hard.
“I think hard things are the only ones worth doing.”
Bookshops, alongside libraries, are crucial to building literacy and other reading skills, without which David says “it’s hard to live a fulfilled life”.
David is keen to sing the praises of Five Leaves in particular – he visits most weeks for events and likens the shop to a “feisty infant”.
He explains: “Five Leaves and, before it, Mushroom Bookshop have been incredibly important to a lot of us.
“They’re very supportive of the local literature scene.
“Their success is down to their being driven by passion rather than profit.”
It’s this passion and upstart energy that seems to unite Nottingham’s literary community.
A poetry scene flourishes here, with readings of established and newer writers both well-attended, whilst the Nottingham Zine Library – currently housed within the Nottingham Contemporary – hosts a vivid collection of disruptive creations.
Through all these ventures runs a belief that literature really can change the world, if we give it half a chance.
In which case, with the success of Five Leaves and such a bevy of other progressive literary projects on the go, Nottingham should be ready to get a whole lot more radical.