August Bookshop of the Month: No Alibis
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.
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 the first 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
For more information about the CWA’s Booksellers Champion, visit this page.