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By Norman Warwick

The UK government has said some bookshops can now return to physical selling as part of a phased exit from the coronavirus lockdown. However, at the time of the publication of the last issue of trade magazine, The Bookseller, no details had been announced of which shops might be re-opened at which stage.

Checking out its website at https://www.thebookseller.com/about-us I learned that The Bookseller magazine is the incisive and independent source of business intelligence and analysis for the book trade. We produce the Official Top 50 chart and preview key forthcoming books three months before publication. For publishers, retailers, agents, libraries, national media and festivals, we are the trusted primary source for everything that’s happening in the industry. For years, The Bookseller‘s author interviews have profiled many top authors – or those destined to become so, including the then-unknown J K Rowling in 1997.´

However, that issue included results of the publication´s own survey that showed close to a third of respondents, including a mix of independent and chain booksellers, said they would go back to work, when allowed, but 29% said they would not, while 36% said they remained uncertain.

Among those with reservations about re-opening, one bookseller responding to the survey spoke of not feeling safe working in close and frequent contact with customers. Another qualified that by saying that if safety precautions are suitably in place, then a tentative return might prove acceptable and understandable. The same respondent,  however,  said he was concerned that,  without strong public pressure, not all bookshop owners would comply.

The correspondent further spoke of ´a return fraught with anxiety´ and said he was therefore preparing for some period of work in which conditions aren’t satisfactory´ and that he expected that active pressure from staff to improve measures will be required.

Of the measures that need to be put in place, top of a list of booksellers’ priorities will be the strict monitoring of the number of customers allowed in the store, the implementation of social distancing rules, and the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), all in accordance with government guidelines.

Making a bookshop a safe environment for its customers is, of course, essential to the imminent return to opening but so, too, is making bookshops safe environments for staff. These measures include, somehow, monitoring items that customers browse through but not purchased so that those copies can be removed and be wiped and sterilised.

Concerned booksellers around the country voiced the need for such significant safety measures to be in place to make sure the staff are all protected. Staff and management of some book shops recall that before lockdown was properly secured many customers ignored the social distancing guidelines and many insisted on using cash despite clear instructions of card payments only.

However, many retailers among those contacted by The Bookseller were keen to re-open as soon as possible.

Peter Brook, co-owner of BrOOK’s in Pinner, said while online sales had kept the business ticking over, he has prepared for re-opening by moving all the furniture out of his store and re-designing the large floor-space with social distancing in mind.

He said: ´We’re pretty determined to [re-open] as soon as we’re able to. The only challenge for us is deciding when to order new books. So we have quite a lot of books already in stock but I don’t want to place an order for books that are currently new and then not have the books that are new when we come to re-open. So I’m holding off a little bit because there are quite a few blips in the supply chain as far as books from printers to publisher and publisher to distributors.´

The virus and the nation´s reaching of ´the new normality´ will surely highlight the need for the omniscience all booksellers rely on in anticipating and meeting (and shaping) the changing needs of their customers.

BrOOK´s  international travel section, for example, is being replaced by other titles as the store tries to adapt to what customers might want when they do return. Holiday destinations and, indeed, the very nature of holidays are quite likely to change dramatically and very quickly and readers will soon start looking for titles that reflect those changes and offer them guidance. However, with international holiday opportunities still contingent on the number of infections and virus reproduction rate, sudden changes in customer requirements might be remarkably rapid.

Brook said: “One thing that’s going to be hard I think is, from the very nature of being a bookseller, the profile of our customers is probably more mature than other sorts of outlets so it’s going to take a while for those older people to have the confidence to come out and walk around a retail unit. But we can’t stay closed because that’s not an option. We’ll have to open and see how it goes. Even before that, however, I will have to make sure the staff is willing to work so there are a lot of variables.´

After reading this I paused and researched Brooks in Pinner on-line. There is a wealth of information on a web site at https://www.brookspinner.com and other social media outlets showing them to be a clean, spacious and obviously forward-thinking establishment seeking to engage with its community. You can find out more about the titles they stock as well as the readings, signings, wine-tasting, poetry nights and all sorts of other events the venue regularly organises for not only established book lovers but also for a non-traditional book-reading audience.

I returned then to The Bookseller article where Sheryl Shurville, co-owner of Chorleywood and Gerrards Cross Bookshops, was telling The Bookseller that she will open as soon as she can.

She said  ´We have bought our plastic screens, we’ve got our face masks, we are set to go really. We have two smallish shops that could easily manage one or two people – whatever the guidelines prescribe – coming into the premises. So many other shops are open, even dry cleaners. I am slightly frustrated we weren´t able to open sooner; but now the message has been given that we can open, we are prepared and (will do so).´

Shurville pointed out the Booksellers´Association has undertaken to give bookshops a rebate of £50 per perspex screen through its £50,000 fund and is offering kits including signs saying “queue here” and arrows to reinforce the 2-metre wide social distancing measures. Meanwhile Gardners, a trade supplier, has been assisting with PPE kits for bookshops, including face shields and surgical masks. 

With turnover not even 20% of what it usually is, she added business would continue to be difficult even when the shops are re-opened.

´It will be [difficult]. A lot of people won’t come out. We are doing a lot of deliveries and I think that will continue. A lot of people are really scared. We’re not expecting our trade to be anything like what it was.´

She added: ´Government support has been quick, we have had our grants, but I don’t think it’s going to be enough. We organise lots of events and I don’t know what the events market is going to look like. We took authors into schools, another area we had great success with but that won’t be happening in the foreseeable future. The shops need all the other things to thrive. It is a concern. We have to work our way through it. I’ve had to cancel over twenty events and have yet to book anything even for the autumn. There’s a willingness but it’s just how it’s actually going to happen. It’s all unfolding very slowly.´

While processing orders made online, Shurville noted issues with the supply chain were causing a “huge problem” and the shop is having to wait weeks at a time for replies to correspondence and subsequent deliveries from wholesalers most of whom are under the same restricted work schedule as the shop owners themselves. The supply chain is still a huge problem and, with major wholesalers struggling to survive economically, is a real worry for book shops, on top of everything else.

´We have some very loyal customers,´ Sherville acknowledged.  ´They are trying to order from us and we try to order the books in, but it doesn’t quite happen. When you think we usually have such a slick operation, with next-day delivery, it really is hard.´

Richard Drake, owner of Drake The Bookshop in Stockton, has also been making plans, but wondered if people would feel comfortable enough to physically shop. There is also the issue of how financially secure people will feel.

“It must be a crazily difficult thing trying to balance health and economy, and I guess we book-shops are about to find that out, , even if on a smaller scale,´ Drake told The Bookseller.

´Our main concern is everyone’s safety. We have been amazed at the continued support of our customers and their desire to keep us trading and we will be ever grateful, but the last thing we want is for people to come back to what is a very small shop and feel anxious. We are looking at ways of re-routing the shop, working out maximum numbers and whether opening part time is the way forward – this was one suggestion made at one of the recent Bookseller’s Network virtual coffee mornings. Screens, sanitiser, gloves and visors are all being looked into as safe ways forward. We will make sure we are ready and everyone is happy — staff and customers — before we open the doors again, which given the flexibility and ingenuity of the book industry, and especially the indie sector, could well be very soon, but we aren’t going to over-promise. Meanwhile, we will continue to offer our services online.

It will be interesting to see how quickly people feel comfortable enough to visit the high street again. We really have to promote the support-local idea and Totally Locally, as lots of the regulars to the urban high street have found an alternative to physically visiting, and we need to make sure the whole of Stockton is able to offer a reason to come back, as it’s not really in the top ten day trip destinations. Also, the demographic of much of Teesside is such that it may be a long time before large parts of the community are financially back on their feet.´

Emma Corfield-Walters, who runs Book-ish in Crickhowell, said she was unsure if the changes would affect her as the Welsh Assembly had not, at the time, announced a relaxation of its lockdown measures.

She said: ´I hope things are going to be different here but I still fear there might too soon be another spike. We’re in an older area and in a tourist town. Even if we do open it will just be me for a while because I don’t think people will want to spend a long time browsing.”

Corfield-Walters has had her till measured for a screen and signed up for some PPE but said she would be taking a survey of her staff’s confidence in returning to work before opening up again.

She said: ´The longer we have, the more information we have and the more secure I feel that I’m protecting my staff. There are so many things to take into consideration. I’m seeing people saying great, we’ll be back open (soon), but I don’t think it’s going to be that simple.´

However, David Headley, who runs Goldsboro Books, said shops should be allowed to open ´as soon as they can do so safely´.

David studied theology in London and Durham before co-founding and becoming the Managing Director of Goldsboro Books, a much admired, leading independent bookseller, based in central London. David has spent the last 20 years establishing Goldsboro Books and building good relationships with editors within the UK’s major publishing houses and now this central London independent bookshop, sells  first editions and is home to the world’s largest signed first edition book club.

Mr. Headley told The Bookseller, ´We are fortunate that we have three doors and we can use our space effectively and safely. Though, I think that as soon as we are allowed to re-open to the public, we will open by appointment only for a period of time until we feel that it is safe to open more freely. I feel that bookshops should be allowed to open if they can provide a safe environment with social distancing.  

Wine merchants, fast food and grocery stores are open and I think books are as important in these difficult times. I’ve seen e-books sales figures today and people are reading more digitally but there are still people who want physical books.´

We have regularly received news here at Sidetracks & Detours of virtual creative writing group meetings, filmed poetry readings or author readings and it seems that even the smallest book club or reading group has found ways to remain in contact. Reading habits and formats will have changed considerably over these last few months and book shops will have to quickly rejuvenate their customer base and identify their new needs.

Book shops will look different in the future; more pristine, perhaps, with all books more easily visible and accessible for browsing to the customer. However, that very notion of browsing, handling, riffling through pages of books that may have already been similarly handled several times throughout the day might no longer seem so appealing. Even those, like me, who claim to love the feel and smell of a ´real´ book, as compared to say a Kindle device, might feel less inclined in future to sort through pallets and shelves of books to find a copy of The Plague by Camus.

Nevertheless The Booksellers´ survey revealed a wide recognition of the need for hygiene and social-distancing so the days of any kind of  ´dirty bookshops´ are certainly numbered. There is nothing quite like a book shop, with an interested, interesting and informed staff member behind the counter able to guide, advise and recommend us to new readings and old favourites. Let´s welcome them back.

There are several huge Spanish language bookshops here on Lanzarote in Arrecife and for readers in English a couple of excellent Bookswap stores have also re-opened for business, so I have to dash. I want to try to get hold of the new novel by Rachel Abbott, who will be giving us ´words from the writer´ in tomorrow´s post !

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