One of the best opportunities I’ve been granted this year simultaneously turned out to the be one of the most challenging: judging the trade categories of the British Book Awards.
I’m a bookshop geek. Ever since I was a kid, a well-run bookshop with enthusiastic and well-informed staff has been, to me, the pinnacle of the shopping experience. In pursuit of this shopping nirvana I have walked into shops that sell books on black interests, occult bookshops, porn book shops (Rambooks on Holloway Road – FYI: they will buy your dead relatives' secret porn collection, apparently no kinks are barred), religious bookshops – you name it, I’ve probably spent time in there. Favourite bookshop? Probably City Lights in San Francisco… or Shakespeare and Company in Paris or Round Table Books in Brixton. Or would it be Uncle Bobbies in Philadelphia or Sister's Uptown in New York? I cannot for the life of me decide.
But it was not until I was part of the judging panel of the trade categories that I realised just how far from a straightforward business running a good bookshop is. On a good day, to run a truly great bookshop you need the creativity of Steven Spielberg, the money management skills of Warren Buffett, the strength of Boxer in Animal Farm, the persistent determination of Paula Radcliffe, the social media prowess of a Kardashian and the property management skills of… Donald Trump. Even with all of this: profitability and survival are still far from certain. Reminder: this is all on a good day. The pandemic brought about conditions for the worst of days for bookshops, and the high street beyond them. Surviving during this period, let alone thriving, would be an achievement.
The first thing that jumped off the page while reading through the submissions was that innovation was rife. From mystery boxes of books, to cycling books to locations for delivery, to the establishment of collection points, to random acts of kindness driven sales, to running live story time sessions on Instagram and Facebook and much, much more. The way in which many bookshops innovated their way through lockdown was so impressive and a credit to the industry.
It was refreshing to see that despite the lockdowns and the pains of the pandemic there was a much greater focus on the diversity of books on offer and on staff at all levels. Room for improvement remains in many businesses but some of the bookshops were truly exemplary and a delight to behold. I’ll go as far as saying some of the retailers, especially the children’s retailers, offered a truly magical experience as far as equality and diversity is concerned.
The value placed on the wellbeing of customers and staff during this period also really shone through. Far from being faceless revenue generating ventures, many of the bookshops demonstrated themselves to be vehicles for compassion, betterment and care during one of the most difficult times known to any of us.
Perhaps it shouldn’t be surprising. Books themselves can, of course, lift us up when we are down, allow us to escape to different times and lands, educate and inform us and help us to try to make sense of the complexities of life. So, in complex times, good books are perhaps more important than ever.
Seeing so much excellence, determination, innovation, diversity and compassion made the process of judging who ‘wins’ certain categories immensely difficult. At times I felt like going full Pontius Pilate and washing my hands of it. At the risk of sounding corny and dishonest: I truly do believe that anyone who remains in the business is a winner. That’s not to say that those shops that have been hit hard are losers in any way – bookshop life can be precarious at the best of times, and we, as readers and consumers can do our bit too.
Perhaps it is laughably predictable that an article in the Bookseller would advocate for booksellers so it is no surprise I fully support the #ChooseBookShops movement. There is sparsely more tragic a sight than a boarded-up building that once housed a book shop. Culturally, socially and politically it is a tragedy. So as UK bookshops reopen into an aggressive post-lockdown retail environment it is absolutely critical we throw our weight behind them. If you have all the books you need for a lifetime you can always join the Big Green Bookshop initiative and #buyastrangerabook. You’d be doing humanity a really big favour.
Nels Abbey is a writer, satirist and media executive based in London. He is the author of Think Like a White Man (Canongate, 2018), a satirical self-help book. He is the co-founder of The Black Writers’ Guild. He is also a former banker.