CHARLIE CONNELLY on the plight of bookshops during the pandemic, and how you can help them in their fight for survival.
The other night I watched a feature-length documentary profiling New York’s independent bookshops and antiquarian book dealers. No, wait, come back, it was even more gripping than it sounds. The Booksellers features a delicious cast of enthusiasts, eccentrics and gentle souls, not to mention the occasional misanthrope, and on its meander through the independent outlets of New York City combines some eyebrow-raising myth-busting with the occasional thumping confirmation of stereotype.
“People usually think of book dealers as old men in tweed jackets,” say some old men in tweed jackets. That kind of thing. It’s a beautiful film, a love story essentially, and one well worth seeking out. This is how much The Booksellers draws you into its world: at one point someone blew some dust from an old book and my wife, sitting next to me on the sofa, sneezed.
I watched The Booksellers with an enhanced feeling of wistfulness, nostalgia even. With bookshops in England closed again at least for the duration of the current lockdown the footage showing straining shelves of tantalising tomes an ocean away was about as near as I’ll get to wandering the warehouse of imagination that is a good bookshop for a while yet.
Their closure is understandable, of course it is, but particularly unfortunate at the moment for two reasons. This is supposed to be one of the busiest times of the year for booksellers as the rumble of new titles arriving for Christmas grows louder every week. Commercially, especially for independent bookshops, this four-week hiatus is potentially disastrous. It’s one of the most important sales periods of the year and without customers coming through the door the stock is all but useless.
In addition, custom that would usually have been theirs is being driven online where the commercial playing field is about as level as a basketball court on the upper slopes of K2. Indie shops are doing the best they can, beefing up their websites, offering click and collect services, mail order and in some cases even free local delivery with booksellers pedalling through the streets with baskets full of books, but it’s never going to be the same as selling by hand, recommending books to customers, scanning the shelves with someone to find the title they’re after or one perfectly suited to what they’re looking for.
Nothing can make up for that kind of lost footfall. While the book trade managed to keep turning over during the first lockdown, and sales in general were healthier than they might have been, most of that trade was online and much of it was high profile new titles rather than the wide range of books that are sold under normal circumstances (last week I, a midlist author whose books sell steadily if unspectacularly, received my royalty statement for the first six months of this year and it was less than half the usual amount).
Before the latest English lockdown was announced shops were hoping that a bumper Christmas with a flood of new titles might make up at least some of the shortfall but for all that the new lockdown in England was necessary to arrest the second wave of coronavirus infections, taking four weeks out of the run-up to Christmas will hit booksellers hard.
In response, the Booksellers’ Association last week called for bookshops to remain open during the current lockdown restrictions as an essential service. The BA’s managing director Meryl Halls wrote to the government arguing that enforced closure was unfair on bookshops while supermarkets remain open with many of them selling books, and making the point that books have been essential during the pandemic in helping to preserve the nation’s mental health.
A few days earlier a group of high-profile authors including Ali Smith and Salman Rushdie wrote to the prime minister and culture minister Oliver Dowden making similar points. Citing healthier-than-expected book sales as “proof of their importance to the mental health and happiness of the nation”, they asked the government to “declare books essential items during lockdowns, and to allow bookshops and libraries to remain open, if they so wish, in Tier One and Two areas at least”.
This is not an issue confined to England either, there are similar stories across Europe. France’s recent beefed up lockdown restrictions forced their bookshops to close despite Emmanuel Macron having always indicated his awareness of the importance of culture to France and its people. The French publishers’ association the Syndicat national de l’édition, booksellers’ association, the Syndicat de la Librairie Française and authors’ federation the Conseil Permanent des Ecrivains issued a joint statement last month along very similar lines to the UK Booksellers’ Association, citing an “extraordinary appetite for reading among the French” that has strengthened during the pandemic.
“Leave our bookshops open so that social confinement does not also become cultural isolation,” read the statement. “Our readers, who love independent bookshops, would not understand it and would regard it as an injustice. Books satisfy our need for understanding, reflection, escape and distraction, but also sharing and communication.”
According to the newspaper Le Parisien Brigitte Macron had made a strong case to her husband for declaring bookshops essential and all but had him convinced. “A fan of culture, [she] had hoped that bookshops would be spared from the lockdown guillotine,” it reported, only for France’s increasing rates of infection to drive Macron to stiff measures.
The decision led to some French writers calling on book lovers to rise up in “civil disobedience”, which sounds a bit like calling on the care home to rise up in breakdance, but while the dissenting voices did persuade the government to prevent supermarkets from selling books even Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo’s calls for the capital’s independent bookshops to reopen were in vain.
The economic repercussions for France’s 3,000 independent bookshops could be severe. The most famous of them all, Shakespeare & Co, admitted last month that it’s struggling to stay afloat. The shop on the banks of the Seine celebrated its centenary last year but the pandemic has seen sales drop by 80% since March.
“We’ve now gone through all of the bookshop’s savings, which we were lucky to build up, and we have also been making use of the support from the government and especially the furlough scheme,” said owner Sylvia Whitman in an e-mail to customers. “But it doesn’t cover everything.”
Normally crowded with browsers and with a busy schedule of in-store events Shakespeare & Co relies on footfall, its name and hard-earned reputation drawing visitors from all over the world. While it has been trying to push its online presence, Shakespeare & Co’s major selling point will always be the shop itself where it’s been since 1951, all tiny winding staircases and nooks and crannies piled with books.
There’s a palpable sense of history there, that you’re browsing the same shelves as the likes of Allen Ginsberg, Anaïs Nin, James Baldwin and any amount of other literary heavyweights who’ve passed through. On one occasion when I visited a few years ago Jeanette Winterson appeared and gave a reading to the two dozen or so of us lucky enough to be there.
Not far away from Shakespeare & Co another Parisian bookselling institution is struggling. The 230 or so bouquinistes, the famous outdoor second-hand booksellers with their green metal booths that line both banks of the Seine between Notre Dame and the Pont Royal, are experiencing one of the toughest periods in a history that stretches back half a millennium, to the 16th century when the first book barrows appeared on the site.
Even when permitted to open, the almost complete absence of people on the streets has destroyed the bouquinistes’ trade, which relies almost exclusively on in-person custom. Many of the stalls have been locked closed since March while those remaining open can go through a whole day without a single sale; most are relying on the 1,500 euros a month the French government is paying small businesses to help them through the crisis.
What’s extra galling for smaller scale booksellers is the knowledge that all the while their doors are closed the internet giants are hoovering up business that would otherwise be theirs.
“I find it really tiring that the bigger you are the more you can ignore laws, you can avoid taxes, you can find loopholes,” said Whitman last week. “The smaller you are, the more expensive and the more complicated things are.”
The biggest player by far in the internet book business is Amazon and, sure enough, in the second quarter of this year when the pandemic took hold across the world Amazon’s profits doubled on the same period last year, from $2.6 billion to $5.2 billion. Now, that wasn’t all down to books, but deprived of bookshops most readers would have gravitated instinctively towards the online giant. Given that Amazon’s dominance of the book market makes it difficult for independent shops to compete even under normal circumstances it must be extra frustrating for struggling establishments to see their customers with little option other than turning to Jeff Bezos’ empire to buy their books.
Over the years there have been attempts to claw back at least a portion of the online book market for independent booksellers without much in the way of success. But that may be about to change.
Hive.co.uk was launched in 2011 but in the last couple of years or so has become a bigger player in online book sales. Hive offers discounted books and free postage, and once you’ve placed your order there’s an option to select a specific independent bookshop to receive a slice of the action.
Perhaps even more significantly, earlier this month the successful American site Bookshop.org launched a UK based operation, an online bookseller to which more than 250 independent bookshops have affiliated, receiving around 30% of the sale price of books ordered through their portal.
Authors can also create pages to sell their own books and compile lists of titles they recommend, earning a small commission on each. Intended to be a direct competitor to Amazon, Bookshop.org sold £415,000 worth of books during its first week at the beginning of this month.
It’s not the same as being able to walk into a bookshop, peruse the tables piled high with themed titles and examine the shelves marked ‘staff picks’ with their handwritten summaries of favourite books, but at least you know you’re supporting independent shops in the best way available while their doors are closed.
While Amazon has undoubtedly boosted book sales at prices more people can afford it has opened up a schism between the independent shop (also the chains but it’s independent outlets that concern us here) and the corporate behemoth. While one offers expertise and interaction you’ll never find via an algorithm, the other offers price and convenience.
“You know what we used to call independent bookshops?” asks the New York writer Fran Lebowitz in The Booksellers. “Bookshops.”
Either way, wherever you might source your reading matter, books are providing an essential service during these odd times, as an escape, as a distraction and as a source of learning and discussion. As the French writers’ statement calling for bookshops to be declared essential concluded, “Lire, c’est vivre”.
Reading is living.
FIVE GREAT BOOKS OUT THIS WEEK
TO BE A MAN
Nicole Krauss (Bloomsbury, £16.99)
The second of a reported $4million two book deal, following 2017’s Forest Dark, this is Krauss’ first collection of short stories and spans the entirety of existence, from new-born babies to when lives reach their end.
With sons and lovers, seducers and friends, husbands lost and regained, how many men does can a woman’s lifetime hold? This insightful collection ranging from Switzerland to New York, Japan to Tel Aviv, is taut, dark and immensely rewarding.
SONGTELLER: MY LIFE IN LYRICS
Dolly Parton (Hodder & Stoughton, £35)
“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” might sound like a neat summary of post-Brexit Britain but it’s one of many pithy lines dropped by Dolly Parton, whose interview one-liners are as sharp and recognisable as her lyrics. Some 150 of her songs are collected here, annotated by the woman herself in a sumptuous production pushing 400 pages. The glitzy image often hides the fact that Parton is a hell of a songwriter, showcased here to full effect.
YOU EXIST TOO MUCH
Zaina Arafat (Dialogue Books, £14.99)
An elegantly-written debut that traces the experiences of a young Palestinian-American woman as she negotiates her passage from awkward teens to a creative adulthood. Flitting between the US and the Middle East this is a thought-provoking exploration of love and belonging, and how the two come together to create a sense of self.
WINTERING: THE POWER OF REST AND RETREAT IN DIFFICULT TIMES
Katherine May (Rider, £9.99)
After the chaos and carnage of the last couple of weeks a book described as “a poignant and comforting meditation on the fallow periods of life, times when we must retreat to care for and repair ourselves” sounds just the job. New out in paperback, the hardback was shortlisted for prestigious landscape writing gong the Wainwright Prize earlier this year.
UNQUIET WOMEN: FROM THE DUSK OF THE ROMAN EMPIRE TO THE DAWN OF THE ENLIGHTENMENT
Max Adams (Head of Zeus, £9.99)
From Wynflæd, the Anglo-Saxon noblewoman who owned male slaves and badger-skin gowns to Mary Astell, the philosopher who out-thought John Locke, this is a celebration and a restoration of women’s role in a historical narrative from which they have long been unjustly sidelined, by men.