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14 April 2021updated 27 Jul 2021 11:29am

“It was emotional”: booksellers celebrate the reopening of bookshops

As Covid-19 lockdown restrictions eased in England, allowing “non-essential” retailers to reopen, bookshops were many people's first destination.

By Ellen Peirson-Hagger

“An awful lot of people had been looking forward to visiting bookshops: they play a central role in keeping people sane,” said Brett Wolstencroft, the manager at Daunt Books, on Tuesday (13 April) morning. The previous day, his shop in London’s Marylebone had opened its doors to the public for the first time in three months, and it had gone well: “Yesterday was every bit as busy as you would ordinarily have hoped for on a bright, sunshine-y spring day.”

As Covid-19 lockdown restrictions eased in England on 12 April, allowing “non-essential” retailers, and cafés and pubs with outdoor seating, to reopen for the first time since 6 January, bookshops were for many people the first destination. “All our best regulars came in within the first couple of hours and it was pretty emotional to see the space being used for browsing books again,” said Jo Heygate, manager at Pages of Hackney, east London. 

Many bookshops that did not already have functioning websites have, since the first lockdown in March 2020, set up e-commerce sites, selling books via mail order and for collection. Daunt Books had “almost been working as a warehouse”, said Wolstencroft, while Heygate said her shop had “essentially been a post office sorting room for months”. 

They want to browse and read blurbs and talk to people.

While such sales have been vital in helping bookshops stay afloat, for many booksellers, they don’t compare to having customers physically in a shop, browsing the shelves and stumbling across unexpected titles. Beverley Pullan, who works at Chorlton Bookshop, a family-owned business in Greater Manchester, said she enjoyed seeing customers wander in and out of the shop for the first time in months, especially those who hadn’t been interested in buying online. “We had a lot of people saying, ‘We want to look at books, we don’t want to just order on the phone!’” she said. “They want to browse and read blurbs and talk to people. Sometimes we have customers who come in and they ask for advice; they’ll say, ‘I’m looking for a present for somebody, this is what they like.’ Rather than trawling through the internet, they can physically hold that book, look through it and decide.”

Pullan is hopeful that Chorlton Bookshop will remain busy – it is situated on a bustling high street, where locals pick up a coffee before wandering the shops. Pages of Hackney sits in a trendy part of east London, close to residential areas, while Marylebone High Street – Daunt Books’s flagship location – is a sought-after shopping destination. The Little Apple Bookshop, which is co-owned by Tim Curtis and Philippa Morris, lies in the centre of York, a tourist destination that, Curtis said, has been hit by a lack of international tourists, though they anticipate lots of UK-based holiday-makers this summer. On its first day open again, The Little Apple Bookshop welcomed a mix of “friendly faces” and new customers, some of whom had found the shop online, and others who had only recently moved to the city.

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But not every bookshop owner has rushed to open their doors. AN Devers, the owner of The Second Shelf, a specialist business selling antiquarian, rare and first edition books by women, chose not to reopen her shop as soon as government guidelines allowed. The Second Shelf is a relatively new business: it opened in November 2018 in a small property in a gated courtyard in London’s Soho. When Devers reopened on and off last summer, she realised her tiny shop was unsuitable for social distancing, and she “hated the policing of masking; it was an uncomfortable role to be in. I support and champion all the bookstores reopening,” she said. “In a lot of ways, it’s up to the individual bookstore to decide how and what they can do, and work with their staff in a way to create the safest environment. I do think it can be done safely. But my little shop is so small and our courtyard is so hidden. Until I’m more certain that people will be looking for us, I think it would cost me more to be open and also put us at risk until we’re feeling a little safer.”

There is something magic about book-buying as happenstance.

Devers plans to wait until she is fully vaccinated against Covid-19 before reopening The Second Shelf. In the meantime, she is selling her books online to readers, as well as to collectors, universities and libraries. She doesn’t envisage ever holding in-store talks again, and for months hasn’t ordered any of the contemporary titles she once sold alongside these events. “I was a specialty store and I liked doing a little bit of everything, but I think the pandemic has driven me further into my specialty: I’ll be focused on collectible books, special books that people buy for gifts. I feel quite hit by the littleness of my store, and the newness of it.”

The closure of bookshops has also impacted first-time authors, many of whom are belatedly anticipating seeing their books on shop shelves in person for the first time. Rebecca Watson, whose debut novel Little Scratch was published by Faber in January, has experienced a strange publication period – without the in-store events, signings and book sightings that usually accompany such an exciting moment. Watson has not yet had a chance to spot her novel in a populated bookshop, but said she found it “moving to imagine customers picking it up by chance, and coming to it perhaps with no expectation of what the book was. There is something magic about book-buying as happenstance.”

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Such shopping on impulse also allows stores to sell items that are not so popular with online buyers – greetings cards, in the case of Chorlton Bookshop, and badges, bags and “weird and wacky” gift books at The Little Apple Bookshop. Children were excited to finally spend saved-up book vouchers, too, Curtis noted.

More than anything, Wolstencroft was moved by the sight of his bookshop as a place for physical encounters. “Bookshops are a central place in any community for people to meet and talk. Clearly there’s been an epidemic of people being shut away from social interaction, which bookshops being open helps to put right.”