In the early days of the Covid-19 crisis, booksellers up and down the country were rubbing their hands, and not just when they had a bar of soap between them. It looked like a windfall was imminent: people would be desperate to stock up on books in case they were forced to stay at home in the evenings, or laid up with fluey symptoms.
Booksellers reasoned that people would want to make the most of having an opportunity to read Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in its entirety at last; or perhaps they would be seeking the literary equivalent of a comfort blanket by purchasing the complete works of Jilly Cooper.
2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程But this was before “self-isolation” and “social distancing” became buzzwords. Although some bookshops have seen a sales boom in the past few weeks, the tide turned once customers began to heed the Government’s warnings against mixing with other people.
To shut or not to shut? Boris Johnson’s announcement of a lockdown took the decision out of the booksellers’ hands, temporarily at least, but before that there was some controversy over whether bookshops should stay open, possibly posing a risk to the health of their employees and customers, and contributing to the spread of the virus.
On Friday, James Daunt, the managing director of Waterstones and arguably the most successful bookseller in Britain, was bullish. “Demonstrably,” he said, “books are a necessity, and, frankly, a social support for people that are going to be spending a lot of time in their homes… If we keep the bookshops open, not just our bookshops but all of them, that is a significant social benefit.”
2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程But the following day, Waterstones staff tweeted that they were being refused permission to wear gloves and masks and were not receiving adequate supplies of hand sanitiser, despite dealing with the public for hours on end. The Newcastle branch of Waterstones went so far as to tweet a plea to customers to stay away (“we love you all but please stay home”) and insisting that the store being open was “not our decision”. Writers and celebrities bombarded Waterstones with complaints on social media. On Sunday, the company said it would temporarily close all its stores to the public.
2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程Many independent bookshops, who may have less demanding shareholders than Waterstones does, had already taken the decision to close their doors. It was a sad choice to have to make, not least because Amazon had temporarily removed the pre-order option from forthcoming books while it prioritised stocking other high-demand items (it has now been restored) and its delivery times for books are generally much longer than usual. For an indie bookshop to have to close while Amazon was not functioning at its best is like David being ordered to go home and rest just as he’s about to deliver the coup de grâce to the wounded Goliath.
This may be a dangerous time for bookshops, in terms of how social distancing affects the way we buy books. People who have resisted Amazon in the past may rapidly get used to having books delivered to their doorstep. A lot of people who have barely touched the e-reader they got for Christmas two years ago may find that it is about to come into its own, as they suddenly yearn to read a book they don’t already have on their shelves.
The recent explosion in the popularity of easily downloadable audiobooks has been causing bookshops a headache for the past few years, with many bibliophiles having virtually given up on reading in favour of listening: a trend that is likely to increase if people aren’t going out much. Audible, the leading audiobook publisher, is streaming readings of hundreds of children’s books for free while the schools are closed: a commendable gesture, but also a canny one. If you get people hooked on audiobooks when they’re young, it will mean lower sales of physical books in the future.
So what can bookshops do to keep afloat? When the lockdown is over, their best option will be to offer a delivery service to their customers. Booksellers’ social media accounts were awash last week with pictures of staff leaping on to their bicycles or even skateboards to get books to customers. The Book Hive in Norwich has been asking customers to answer a few questions about their literary tastes and then sending them specially curated “self-isolation packs” of books likely to appeal – and waiving the postage fee.
Before the lockdown came into force last night, I spoke to Fleur Sinclair, who owns one of my favourite independent book shops, the sparkling but serene Sevenoaks Bookshop in Kent. She told me that she took the decision to close the shop to browsers on Saturday, following what had been a successful week. “Footfall was down but the people who came were buying more books – and longer books. The new Hilary Mantel [The Mirror and the Light], Stalingrad, long reads that will get them through this period of isolation.”
Until a week ago, the Sevenoaks shop did not do deliveries. “But we scrambled together an online shop that has all of our stock – 8,000 titles – Rome was built in a day. We want to keep our identity, so we provide ideas and recommendations, too. It’s a way to carry on the conversation we would have had in our bookshop.”
Sinclair is full of praise for the Booksellers’ Association, which has provided invaluable support and advice (“the best trade organisation in the world”). Advice is certainly needed at a time when she has to juggle working out the new logistics of her business, calculating how to keep her staff paid and fulfilling the bookshop’s role as a social hub.
2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程“We’ve had to cancel all our events, but hopefully we can carry on some of our book groups on social media. But a lot of our customers, who might come in and use our cafe every day, are older people who aren’t on social media, and so it’s important that we stay at the end of the phone. We want to all muck in and stop people from being lonely as much as possible.”
2020欧洲杯小组赛赛程It’s a reminder of the important role independent bookshops play in their community; I don’t imagine James Daunt has sent Waterstones staff a directive saying that they should be having plenty of long phone chats with the housebound.
Although some bookshops have been affected by the lockdown announcement, many are able to carry on delivering by arranging for books to be sent direct from their suppliers. Some of those that are pausing delivery are still urging customers to contact them to discuss recommendations or to have a general chat.
Bear in mind also that if your local bookshops can’t deliver during lockdown you can support them by buying a voucher for future use, whether for yourself or as a gift. And we must all hope that, when the lockdown has eased, these businesses bounce back. Bookshops are havens, and we’ll need those more than ever once we’re back on the streets.
11 bookshops that are still delivering in lockdown
The following bookshops are taking orders (by phone or e-mail), posting books out, and sometimes offering local delivery too. Check with each shop before you buy, as events are changing quickly.
1. The Little Ripon Bookshop, Ripon
2. The Bookseller Crow, Crystal Palace, London
3. Dulwich Books, West Dulwich, London
4. Old Bank Bookshop, Wigtown
5. Tell Tales Books, Warrington
Info: 01925 851953
6. October Books, Southampton
7. City Books, Brighton
8. St Ives Bookseller, St Ives
9. Cover to Cover, The Mumbles, Swansea
10. The Snug, Bridgwater
11. Blue Bear Bookshop, Farnham
Info: 01252 821269