As more countries go into lockdown, bookshops around the world are having to think of creative ways to serve their customers and communities, writes Clare Thorp.
In uncertain times, few spaces feel more comforting than a bookshop. And, over the past few years, as the world has felt increasingly tumultuous, indie bookshops – once in danger from online retailers and big chains – have experienced something of a resurgence, providing a place of solace and sense of community.
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So, it feels especially painful that during this global pandemic, bookshops – at least physically – have become increasingly out of bounds. As Covid-19 spreads around the world, many countries are entering periods of total lockdown, with all but essential services closed and people ordered to stay inside. Even where official lockdowns are not in place, social distancing and avoiding unnecessary contact is urged. Many people are choosing to self-quarantine because they are at high-risk or want to help stop the spread.
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All this means bookshops are rapidly closing their stores – some because they have been told to, others through choice to protect the health of their customers and staff. Those that have been able to keep their doors open have seen a significant drop in footfall. Yet, with people stuck at home and in need of distraction and escape, books suddenly feel more vital than ever – and booksellers by their very nature are resilient and creative folk. So they are coming up with new ways to serve their customers and communities, from ramping up their delivery service and dropping off orders by bicycle, to recreating their community spaces on social media, recommending the perfect books for those stuck in self isolation and running virtual events.
For Mike Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore, an award-winning shop in Ann Arbor, Michigan, shutting the doors was both an easy and a difficult decision to make. “I was on the phone with our manager about limiting our hours when my wife walked into my office and bluntly stated, ‘We need to close.’ We made the decision to close 15 minutes later. And we could be closed for many months.”
Like many shops, they moved quickly to prioritising online ordering – hoping that their customers would understand. “We usually get around 5 or 10 orders a day. In less than a week we’ve had over 800,” says Gustafson. “Everything happened so fast. However, our community has rallied behind us. They have placed many orders, left overwhelmingly kind comments and boosted our morale on social media pages. I fully grasp that during times like these, books are not high on the hierarchy of survival needs. And yet, for so many, books offer a unique kind of comfort, and perhaps are really needed right now.”
We are creating a community online, so neighbours can still interact with neighbours about ideas, new voices, art and books – Mike Gustafson
While they work their way through the spate of online orders, they’re also exploring digital book clubs and online writing courses. “We are taking a look at creating a community online, so neighbours can still interact with neighbours about ideas, new voices, art and books.”
On social media, movements like IndieBound are connecting readers to bookshops, and showing people how they can support their local store, from ordering books online and buying gift cards to signing up for newsletters and pre-ordering new releases.
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In the UK, Books Are My Bag have led a huge drive to promote the initiatives of indie bookstores, using the hashtag #ChooseBookshops. These include Norwich’s The Book Hive, offering curated self-isolation packs and Bath’s Mr B’s Emporium – which has called itself ‘Non-Contact Open’, rather than ‘Closed’ – featuring a collection of Staying Home?-themed lists of books on their website for those looking for inspiration.
Books on wheels
While Amazon has announced plans to temporarily de-prioritise book orders in favour of household supplies, independent bookstores are stepping up their delivery strategy. Many booksellers are getting an extra workout as they dash around town on their bikes – one staff member at Abingdon’s Mostly Books covered 75km in a week delivering literary packages. South London bookshop Kirkdale has roped in a literary agent to help dispatch orders while Glasgow’s indie LGBTQIA+ bookshop Category Is Books is delivering by skateboard, too (though perhaps the prize for most novel delivery method goes to the Kiruna bookshop in Sweden, which is dispatching books by kick-sled).
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“Booksellers are among the most resilient, warm and resourceful of people, and bookshops have been swift to adapt to the obstacles of social distancing and self-isolation to provide incredible services for their customers,” says Meryl Halls, managing director of the Booksellers Association of the UK and Ireland. But she says it’s vital to remember that, while many bookshops are demonstrating pragmatism and optimism, they still desperately need the support of the public, the publishing industry and their governments to weather this new landscape.
Dieter Dausien, owner of Buchladen am Freiheitsplatz in Hanau, Germany understands why his shop has, like all other non-essential retail businesses, been told to shut down – but it doesn’t make it any easier. “The worst thing is the uncertainty as to how long the closures will last,” he says. “We deliver books to customers at home, or leave ordered books in front of our door for customers to collect, making sure there is no human contact. But it’s a much greater effort to prepare books for shipping than to sell in store.”
When French bookstores closed after the government ordered the shut-down of all non-essential businesses, publishers stepped in to help by delaying release dates and postponing payment deadlines.
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In Italy, the country now worst hit by the Coronavirus, things are understandably tough. All bookstores are closed as part of the national lockdown. Home deliveries can also only be made by a regulated courier – not the booksellers themselves – and costs for this are high and difficult for smaller shops. Yet bookstores have not given up, using social networks and online tools to keep in touch with customers. In Milan, La Scatola Lilla organises a live Instagram broadcast each day, with guests discussing books and giving reading advice.
China, the country in which the Covid-19 outbreak first began, also saw bookstores hit hard. Last month Chinese bookstore chain OWSpace said it had seen sales fall by 80% and pleaded with people to buy gift cards to keep them going. In Beijing, where 80% of bookstores have been closed, booksellers have teamed up with food delivery services to get books to readers. Yet as the spread of the virus slows, there are tentative signs that bookstores are coming out the other side, with Hachette UK CEO David Shelley saying last week he had seen an increase in orders from China.
Perhaps one small comfort for booksellers is that they are fighting this together. In Daegu, the epicentre of the coronavirus outbreak in South Korea, three bookshops joined together to provide a secret delivery service for customers, with a book personally selected by each shop and delivered with packets of tea to self-isolators.
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It’s not just adult readers affected by bookshop closures, but children too. In the town of Kyneton in Victoria, Australia, Squishy Minnie is used to up to 100 kids cramming into the shop for a weekly story hour – some feat for a place with a population of 6,000. When owner Kristen Proud made the decision to shut up shop, she wanted to keep the community connected, so they have moved their story-time to YouTube. “After our first one went live we had an overwhelmingly positive response, with many people in self isolation contacting us with photos of their children enjoying it and people thanking us for keeping some routine in their lives.”
The shop has also moved their bookclubs online, and are offering free delivery for an area covering almost 1,750 sq km. “For us it is about being flexible but maintaining as much consistency as possible. I don’t know if we will survive, I have no idea. But if we are going to, keeping our bookish community connected is the only way.”
A little further south in Melbourne, Leesa Lambert of bookstores Neighbourhood Books and The Little Bookroom says they’re quickly having to rethink their entire business strategy – which usually relies heavily on events, and are listening to customers to find out how they can best support each other. “Reading will help us through,” she says. “We all know this crisis is, and will continue to be, painful. But the act of reading de-escalates stress and anxiety. It’s a consistent, predictable routine, much needed in this disrupted world.” Somewhat ironically, their last live event before closing their doors was with teacher and author Maddie Witter – a specialist in trauma recovery. “She shared the incredible results of her work: reading changes lives. That give us hope.”
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