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2 April 2020

Will bookshops be a casualty of the coronavirus crisis?

Dedicated readers often feel a strong emotional attachment to bookshops, but how is this precarious retail sector faring during the pandemic?

By Anna Fielding

Now is the time to finally read Ulysses, you might think. I have time to really enjoy The Mirror and The Light. Perhaps worry has led you to the rush of a thriller, or to escape into a much-loved fantasy world. You wouldn’t be alone.

As rumours of a coronavirus lockdown began, book sales went up. On 18 March, Waterstones reported a rise of 17 per cent across all stores. “Obviously children’s books and educational titles were selling well,” said James Daunt, the chain’s managing director, referring to purchases by home-schooling parents. “But longer titles with a lot of pages were also very popular.”

The bookshop had been running a promotion on novellas, so the uplift in sales of lengthy books was almost certainly related to the pandemic. Amazon does not release sales figures, but its UK charts for the week ending 15 March showed several books on cooking and house cleaning, plus a new entry in second place: the Kindle edition of End of Days: Predictions and Prophecies About The End of the World by American psychic Sylvia Browne, who died in 2013. 

Over the weekend of 21-22 March, criticism of Waterstones started to appear on social media, with Twitter users warning conditions were not safe for its staff without safety equipment. Employees also reported feeling obligated to go into work. 

“We were very clear that anyone with symptoms or in close contact with someone vulnerable should stay at home,” Daunt told me.

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The Twitter storm intensified, with doctor-turned-author Adam Kay pleading with his “beloved Waterstones” to close. The chain announced on Sunday 22 March that the following day would be its last one trading for the foreseeable future. 

“If people are panic buying books then that’s great,” said Tom Tivnan, managing editor of industry publication the Bookseller. “But coronavirus will obviously have a huge effect across the sector.” Even before the government ordered non-essential retailers to shut their doors on 23 March, many smaller bookshops were struggling. Tivnan estimated 200 independent booksellers had closed by 20 March: “It represents a real problem for indie shops and could lead to permanent closures.” 

“We shut before there was an edict from on high,” said Shaun Bythell, author of Confessions of a Bookseller and owner of The Bookshop in Wigtown, which is Scotland’s largest second-hand bookshop. “I felt slightly guilty being open even before then. When I did announce we’d close I received a slew of emails from all over the world, countries that have had the virus longer than us, saying ‘good for you, I wish we’d done it months ago’.” 

For both Bythell’s shop and the 280 branches of Waterstones Daunt is responsible for, the government pledge to pay 80 per cent of employees’ wages during the lockdown has been invaluable. “Wages are my biggest overhead,” said Bythell, although as he is self-employed his own income is still uncertain, even after the Chancellor Rishi Sunak promised to help self-employed and freelance workers. The same is true for many other independent book retailers. 

As the lockdown was announced, a fund to help independent booksellers was set up by three people working in the industry: Gayle Lazda from the London Review Bookshop, publisher Zeljka Marosevic from Daunt Books and Picador commissioning editor Kishani Widyaratna. Money raised will go to the Book Trade Charity and funds are available to anyone working in a bookshop in the UK and Ireland who finds themselves in hardship because of Covid-19. 

“Booksellers are some of the publishing industry’s most precarious workers and part of an increasingly squeezed sector,” said Widyaratna. “Early on in the Covid-19 crisis we heard stories of how bookshops and booksellers were suffering. We wanted to do something to enable people to help them directly.” In under 24 hours, the group had raised £7,000 of its £10,000 target. It has now joined forces with Britain’s largest publishing group Penguin Random House and with the Bookseller’s Association, with the target increased to £100,000. 

There has been further help from the digital platform Hive, which allows customers to buy books from independent bookshops online. The company has doubled the commission it pays to retailers. It comes at a time Amazon has chosen to “deprioritise” books and other non-essential items. 

For James Daunt, nothing matches the physical experience of being in a bookshop: “Online there’s no one to guide you or to make recommendations. If you know exactly what you want, then great, but you can’t beat browsing.” 

There is hope for the future. In China, where during the lockdown period 80 per cent of bookshops closed and sales slumped, orders are rising rapidly, according to Hachette UK CEO David Shelley. Until then, book lovers should stay home and read.