Updated: Nov 23, 2020
Should bookshops be categorised as 'essential'?
The pandemic has hit the retail market hard. At the time of writing, shops deemed 'non-essential' in the U.K. have been closed for just over two weeks and are expected to remain so for an entire month. Considering that they spent months closed in the spring of this year, it could be the final nail in the coffin for many independent retailers and that includes beloved bookshops, who were struggling to begin with.
"Lanterns of Civilisation and Beacons of Hope"
An open letter to the government from the British Booksellers’ Association recently called for bookshops to be classed as essential businesses during lockdown because they support health and wellbeing. In the last lockdown, garden centres were re-opened for that very reason and, given that the bulk of their business is done in the spring, closure at that time for them would have been catastrophic. In the run up to Christmas, bookshops are faced with a similar plight at their busiest time of year. In their letter, UK booksellers argue that "Bookshops are lanterns of civilisation and beacons of hope", as well as pointing out that many other countries have categorised bookshops as essential. Sales of books actually rose in the last lockdown, however, independent bookshops without any means of online sale were not the recipients of these increases. Many independents also rely on this time of year just to keep the lights on, making losses for eleven months with December sales providing the biggest share of their profits and keeping them afloat. Being closed at this time could well mean the end for many of them. The thought of this happening makes me desperately sad and has made me reflect on the importance of bookshops in my life, even when I had no money to spend in them!
My Not-So-Secret Shame
As a child, my main sources of books were the school and local libraries, hand-me-down books from older siblings and cousins or second-hand books. I was lucky that my house always had books and I come from a family of avid readers. However, brand new books (the holiest of holies) were generally only received on special occasions and, even then, they were a gift - no browsing involved. An actual trip to the bookshop was a rare and special treat. Besides the infrequency of bookshop trips, when I was a child there were very few actual bookshops around! I remember browsing for hours in a tiny children's section of a W.H. Smith, stuck somewhere between heaven and hell, as I agonised over which books would be worthy of parting with my £5 book token (interesting fact: if you still have the old paper book tokens with no expiry date, you can still use them. The newer cards, however, do have a time limit of... 8 years!). Aside from W.H. Smith, there were book stalls in Chapel Market and also remember a newsagent on Holloway Road that stocked a wall full of books, but no local bookshop that I recall.
The first real local bookshop I remember visiting frequently and being thrilled beyond belief with, was The Owl Bookshop in Kentish Town when I was in my very early teens. I am pleased that it is still there and a thriving staple of the area. I am sure it is twice the size it was when I was younger, having only a single shop front where now it is a double (if anyone remembers this differently, please do let me know!). It was near my secondary school and I would pop in there as frequently as decorum would allow, given that I never bought anything. Their children's section would seem modest by today's standards, since the Harry Potter-driven boom in children's publishing, but it was a small corner of heaven to me and the booksellers never bothered me as I carefully handled book after book and then left empty-handed. That shop gave me more than just the opportunity to browse new books. The peaceful, quiet sanctuary it provided to an introverted child after a loud, chaotic and occasionally violent day at a particularly 'lively' school was a gift that cannot be understated. That was the first time that a bookshop saved me. To this day, I still get the same feeling of sheer relief and peace when I enter a bookshop. The smell of new books is like lavendar in its calming effect on me. As some of my best friends can attest, after a particularly stressful day at work, I can often be found breathing in that smell at the nearest available bookshop. Book sniffing is my not-so-secret shame.
Living the Dream in Diagon Alley
At 19, I managed to get a part-time job at a branch of Waterstone's. I soon discovered that landing the Waterstone's job was a sheer stroke of luck because the majority of their booksellers were graduates with many of them qualified to MA level. I, on the other hand, had decided after sixth form that university wasn't for me. I was bored of studying and starting to have a really busy social life with great friends. My part-time jobs had given me the taste of a regular income for the first time in my life, so I thought I would rather work and stay in London where my family and social life were, rather than leave it all behind to have no money, no friends and lots of studying. Yes, I did come to regret that and remedied it later on, but it took a couple of years and this was another time a bookshop saved me. I had bagged the Waterstone's job because they needed a temporary, part-time till monkey over Christmas. This branch was in the City of London - the financial district - so between 12pm and 3pm, when most office workers are on their lunch break, it was as busy as King's Cross station. I was just an extra pair of hands, so it didn't matter that I wasn't as over-qualified as everyone else in there.
After a few months of till work, the manager realised that I was actually a voracious reader who knew her bookish onions, so I was made a full-time bookseller and given my own sections to run. As retail jobs go, it was the best I'd had with a level of independence and responsibility not offered elsewhere. I had to meet with reps and decide what went in my sections (history, classics, sci-fi and fantasy were my main ones in case you were wondering!), I was given proof copies to read, a 33% discount and one of the highest hourly rates I'd ever earned in any shop I'd worked in. Plus I was in a bookshop all day! To make it even better, being in the weird insular world of the City of London meant the shop wasn't open at the weekends and closed at 6pm. A retail unicorn! The location (Leadenhall Market - used as Diagon Alley in the first Harry Potter film) also meant that we frequently had extremely famous people signing books there for all the posh city folks, so I got to meet some amazing people - Stephen King and Michael Palin being my stand out memories.
I thrived in that job and kept discovering more and more subjects that fascinated me. It was on a quiet afternoon in that bookshop that I remember with absolute clarity, when it occurred to me that I wanted to study again. I was shelving some classics - Roman authors - when I had an overwhelming curiosity to find out more about the classical world. I went to evening classes for a year, got into King's College London to study classical archaeology and, afterwards, I went on to be a teacher (sadly, not like Indiana Jones who taught in between saving artefacts from Nazis). I credit that curiosity and change of opinion on studying to the atmosphere I worked in and the people I met there, who all studied and loved learning. The manager even got me a part-time job in the newly acquired Dillons (soon to become Waterstone's) of Gower Street and I worked in their children's department every Saturday throughout my degree. The discount came in very handy.
Booksellers make all the difference
The last school I worked at, like many inner city schools, is in an area of high deprivation and in the top twenty percent of schools in the country with the highest percentage of children on Free School Meals. I ran book clubs for children in Years 5 and 6 and at the end of their time at the school, I would always take those children on a celebratory day out. We would go to the British Library for a book-making workshop and then I would take them to a bookshop and let each of them select a book to keep as a memento of their time in the book club. It was always a really special day. What I always found disheartening was knowing that the nearest bookshops to our school were at least a half hour walk or a twenty minute bus ride away. In the last year that I worked there, a branch of Waterstone's opened up about thirty minutes' walk away and so I went there with a group of children to pick out books and show them where it was. It was a small branch but had a great children's selection and the booksellers were wonderful in advising the children and helping them to find newer titles they may not have heard of before. I was super happy overhearing some of the children talking about going back there in the school holidays as we quick marched back to school. On another occasion, we took some children to The Children's Bookshop in Muswell Hill to select some books for future book clubs. The expertise, guidance and patience that they showed the children really made the day memorable and I'm grateful for the passion for reading and books which those booksellers shared with us. That's why people who work in bookshops are booksellers and not shop assistants. They stand out from other retailers because they all love books and are super happy to talk to you about them because they want others to love them too. Their recommendations made all the difference to those children, who were overwhelmed by choice.
The difference between a bookseller recommendation and those you get on Amazon is like night and day. A real reader with discernable taste and knowledge is telling you about a book, not because the publisher has paid them to advertise it to you or because you once bought a book with a similar title, but because they have read it and, based on what you say you like, they can whole-heartedly recommend it to you. Algorithms based on previous purchases, wishlists and advertising cannot do the same job. And they certainly cannot advise you on a book that your friend or sister or mother or partner will enjoy once you tell them what their interests are, but a bookseller can. Algorithms also won't introduce you to the hidden gems of the smaller publishers or lesser-known local authors, but a bookseller will. Browsing new releases on a screen is limited and in no way comparable to browsing a beautiful display of carefully chosen titles in an actual shop, and that's before I even mention the lack of new-book smell! I miss browsing in bookshops, discovering lesser-known titles and talking to booksellers and I am indescribably saddened that this second lockdown might be a permanent closure for many of them. But all may not be lost!
Enter online retailer Bookshop.org, brainchild of writer Andy Hunter, which went live in January this year in the US and two weeks ago here in the UK. Their mission is to try and grab back some of Amazon's huge market share in the online bookselling game and redistribute the profits to independents who sign up to be a part of it. The intention was to launch here in the UK in 2021 or 2022, but after seeing the huge success of the initiative in the US, British retailers pushed for an earlier launch here. And it couldn't have been more timely, coming as it did in the same week a national lockdown began in England as well as other parts of the UK. While it still doesn't resolve the current closures, it may go some way to softening the blow. In fact, during the last lockdown in the US, Hunter heard from many in the scheme who felt it had saved their businesses from closure.
So, how does the scheme work? The bookshops who have signed up do not have to invest or worry about stock or handling online business; the customer transactions are handled by Bookshop.org with UK book wholesaler Gardners fulfilling the orders. Profits are distributed among the shops in the scheme, unless the customer has specifically named their local bookshop, who will then receive 100% of the profits. The online experience is also supposed to mimic the genuine bookshop experience as well, with retailers curating lists of recommended books that shoppers can browse through, rather than an algorithm making suggestions. On top of this, bloggers, booktubers and bookstagrammers (like me) can set up their own curated lists and very own 'shop' too with a far more generous affiliate programme than any other book retailer, offering 10% commision for any sales made through them. Given the hundreds of thousands of devoted followers that some of these influencers have (sadly, not me!), this is a smart move. While the prices on Bookshop.org cannot compete with the bargains on Amazon, buyers can sleep soundly at night knowing that their money is contributing to keep local bookshops afloat in these troubled times and, hopefully, delivering a long overdue strike at the retail Goliath that is Amazon.
I have my own bookshop at last!
When I heard about this scheme, I devoted some serious time to switching all of my book lists, previously containing Amazon affiliate links, over to it. So far, I have only found one book that I couldn't switch ('Instructions' by Neil Gaiman, if you are interested!) and, yes, I will still offer the Amazon link for that, but I always make the caveat that if you can shop locally, then you should do so. I am not going to reprimand anyone using Amazon. As someone who has had to shield alongside her clinically vulnerable partner, Amazon was a lifeline for us in the last year. It is also difficult for those who would want to buy local but whose budgets won't allow it. Bookshop.org is not cheap. It is not cheap because it is supporting real people and real businesses with real overheads. I would never want anyone to feel shamed or guilted into spending more than they have. Books, however you get them, are an essential life-support system and people should never be shamed for their choice of book or choice of bookshop. But, if you can afford it, perhaps think about trying Bookshop.org. It's as close as you can get to the real-life bookshop experience* and you'll be offering a lifeline to shops who have themselves been a lifeline to so many people for so long.
*New-book smell not included ;-)