Houston, we have a problem: how bookshops might prepare for reopening

Fifty years ago this week, the world watched the unfolding drama of Apollo 13, the space mission hit by an explosion en route to the Moon. The astronauts - using the lunar lander as a lifeboat - endured plunging temperatures, carbon monoxide poisoning, illness and dangerous uncertainty as they swung round the Moon and coaxed the damaged craft back to Earth.

One of the highest moments of film drama was when it came to 'reboot' the command module ready for re-entry. Having shut down as much as they could to save power during the crisis, the re-entry module had been in a deep freeze. Getting it started again was not trivial.

Shutdowns. Uncharted territory. Uncertain outcomes. Might Apollo 13 be a useful metaphor for independent bookshops?

Aside from those who watched it live on TV at the time, the Apollo 13 story is better known thanks to the 1995 film dramatisation. You might recall Tom Hanks telling Mission Control "Houston, we have a problem" and Ed Harris, as cigar-chomping Gene Krantz, rallying the troops with "Failure is not an option".

Having had to rapidly shutdown their businesses as coronavirus hit, booksellers scrambled out of their physical bookshops. Many furloughed staff and closed. Others set up skeleton online operations in the back room - or from home - corralling uncertain supply chains, ad hoc online ordering and home deliveries.

Over the past couple of years, since becoming a bookshop mentor, it's been a privilege - and an eye-opener - to get to know many different bookshop businesses and owners. Independence means a fierce diversity, and almost every shop is run differently.

Booksellers - like many small business owners - do it with a passion and resilience that embeds bookselling deep into day-to-day life. The shuttering of shops has been as much an emotional blow as a commercial one.

As the world begins to imagine an end to lockdown, and a slow resuming of business-as-usual (whatever that is) how should indie bookshops go about the process of rebooting their bookshops, and preparing for re-entry?

In Italy this week, there was initial euphoria about the declaration of books being placed on the 'essential' item list, and bookshops encouraged to re-open. Shared as good news initially, it was tempered by some regions declaring they were not ready, and many booksellers unnerved by the announcement. Re-opening (with the virus still raging) means suddenly being on the frontline - with everything that entails. Most bookshops are small: it doesn't take too many returning customers to make a mockery of the social distancing rules which will inevitably be in place long after business continues.

When some sort of re-opening occurs - and it may be as piecemeal and as uncertain as the imposition of lockdown itself - booksellers will respond as always with creativity and innovation. But are there extra lessons to be learned from Apollo 13?

Firstly, keep things going. Though the astronauts shut down as much as they could, they had to keep some sort of basic life support going, and the craft pointing in the right direction. Astronauts call this 'housekeeping' and though it doesn't sound quite as heroic, using this time to bring accounts up-to-date, checking email and improving your IT might be just the preparation (and activity) you need right now to keep things ticking over - and yourself in a healthy mental state.

Secondly, keep communications open. If you can bear it, send out a newsletter, do check-ins with customers and start posting (even occasionally) on social media. There has been a generational shift in the country regarding community and local business. Your customers will be ready and raring to return - and spend money - once the lockdown is lifted, but only if they know you are here waiting for them. Let them know.

Finally, prepare for re-entry. Lockdown may end in a week or three months. We may have to endure further lockdowns, so get prepared for a new normal. This is - quite frankly - unnerving, even terrifying. It will require courage and a willingness to try new things. The astronauts on board Apollo 13 had no choice but to prepare as best they could. Activity, training - and checklists - seemed to help.

Could you start a checklist now of how you are going to bring your bookshop back to life? Could you bring staff slowly back into the loop, get suggestions from customers, and re-examine everything from stock to the physical set-up of your shop and the flow of (socially distancing) people?

As terrifying as it was, the astronauts on Apollo 13 were not alone.

And neither are you.

There are many groups of people working hard, willing you to make it home safely. As imperfect as it might be there is help available from central government, local authorities, and there may be ad hoc initiatives in your local communities that you can tap in to.

Above all, take advantage of the team at Mission Control - the Booksellers Association.

During the #BooksellerChat last week, the MD Meryl Halls - the Gene Kranz figure in this story - reassured booksellers that "book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open!"

Positivity and optimism can be found, but preparation needs to be started now. Failure is never impossible, but success is very likely with the support that exists. The real-life Apollo 13 ended with a successful splashdown, jubilation - and a lot of relief. Focus on this.

And who knows? One day they might make a film about it.