Amazon founder Jeff Bezos is fond of talking about his 26-year-old firm’s “Day 1” culture. “Staying in Day 1,” he says, “requires you to experiment patiently, accept failures, plant seeds, protect saplings, and double down when you see customer delight.” Day 2, by contrast, is “stasis. Followed by irrelevance”.
High street bookshops have been around a lot longer than Amazon, of course. As Martin Latham writes in The Bookseller’s Tale (Particular Books), booksellers have been hawking printed texts from various fixed and mobile locations for centuries, with Hatchards and W H Smith born in the late 18th century, swiftly followed by Blackwell’s in 1879, the earliest versions of today’s modern bookshop. This week, after a dreadful year of disruption brought on by Covid-19, high street bookshops in England and Wales were able to let customers back into their stores again, with Scotland, Northern Ireland, Ireland to follow.
As is typical for the UK, many high streets had all the weathers to contend with—from snow to drizzle to sunshine—but that did not dampen the mood as booksellers saw familiar customers return and new ones arrive, with one describing it as “just like old times”. According to Springboard, which tracks footfall, by 5 p.m. on Monday 12th April, UK shopping destinations were up 146% from a week earlier, and 481% higher compared with last year (the beginning of the first lockdown). There is an element of catch-up about this. As Nielsen data shows, over the past four weeks, when figures have been provided, year-on-year comparisons show a market in need of a boost: compared to the same period in 2019, those four weeks were down 8% in volume and 4.7% in value. We won’t see this week’s figures until next Tuesday, but Springboard says footfall was 16.2% lower than in 2019.
There is more to bookselling than statistics, of course. As Emma Corfield-Walters, owner of Book-ish, wrote on thebookseller.com this week, what’s been missing over the past few months is that joy from “pressing of the right book into the right palm and watching a face light up when the owner sees a new book by their favourite author”. Or, as some students remarked in Blackwell’s, “This is far better than the pubs being open again!” Even as a former publican’s son, I can second that emotion.
Recovery will not come overnight, though vaccine-willing it is to be hoped that we can now put the lockdowns behind us and build towards a glorious summer of books and socially distanced events. Most important is to quickly repair the disconnect between those who publish the books and those who sell them, with publishers now gifted an opportunity to figure out how bookshops can make the difference to their releases; as Faber has done with Jon Gray’s bookshop-specific cover designs for Sally Rooney’s forthcoming novel, Beautiful World, Where Are You, to be published on 7th September.
This is not Day 1 for bookshops, it is probably not even Day 81,901. But it was a new day for many, and one marked neither by stasis nor irrelevance.