Lockdown diaries: the indie bookseller

Today I’m pretty chipper - relatively well rested, the inbox has under a hundred unread emails and yesterday’s orders are (mostly) parcelled for post or bike runs. That said the week ahead looks bleakly similar to the one behind me - days bouncing between a screen and a packing station, alone. I like to say I’m pretty well adjusted to the new normal but then as soon as I write that a lump sticks in my throat because I don’t think I actually know what I even mean by ‘adjusted’ and every fibre in my body is screaming that it doesn’t want to adjust.

In the first days of March we celebrated book launches with hundreds of readers. We discussed anti-racism with Layla Saad and chronic illness with Porochista Khakpour, trans power with Juno Roche and poetry with Will Harris. And then, the cherry on top, a candlelit cake and prosecco extravaganza for local writer Jane Healey. In retrospect it was something of a last supper, because that way of ‘being’ a bookshop is now gone. Our entire existence was premised on being a community hub - a place to meet, listen, discover. Launches! Bookclubs! Discussion groups and workshops! There is no way of knowing when, or even if, we’ll ever get back to that particular way of being. Over and over these last few weeks I’ve had to ask myself who are we, if we aren’t that?

Sometimes I wonder if I’m actually mourning it. It sounds - and is - a bit absurd to say that, but then this whole thing is a bit absurd. I miss the humans; our booksellers and our readers. I miss our Lighthouse brand of chaos. And I have to remind myself we are among the lucky ones.

The bookshop is in the incredibly privileged position of still being able to sell books - a lucky blend of having an owner-operator who lives close enough to do a contact-free trip to the shop, an existing online presence we could whip into shape, and a stock range we could plunder while deliveries were patchy. Turnover is massively down but the sales are enough to keep one person very busy, as well as pay the bills and furlough top ups for the rest of the team.

I’ve been humbled, sometimes to tears, by the support of readers, because they have rallied not just around us, but around each other - pouring literally hundreds of pounds into our pay-it-forward fund with £5 vouchers. Once just a corkboard with a few tags the pay-it-forward scheme has helped us get hundreds of books to people and families who wouldn't have them otherwise. It’s connected us to so many local organisations and readers well beyond Edinburgh who share our values and now we have this budding online community too.

In those first manic days of the crisis, when the goal posts kept shifting we created #LighthouseLifeRaft - a sort of digital version of the bookshop that is still an unwieldy amorphous thing that loosely links video readings and blogs, newsletters, and social media posts. What started as a desperate attempt to keep the ‘spirit’ of the shop alive online has miraculously done just that. Six weeks of picking pieces from a smorgasbord of approaches has allowed me to actually figure out what translates into sales for us. I get my weekly adrenaline rush pressing send on the newsletter and then seeing that first corresponding web order come through. You have to get your kicks somewhere!

Ultimately the high street is not going back to how it was and we’ve not even seen the worst of it. The more I try to think big, the more the small things matter - our readers came to us for the politics and opinions, for the visibility of marginalised voices, for the compassion and insight of our booksellers, and yeah, for the dog. For that to work in an online space we have to double down on all those things (except maybe the dog) and that opens new doors.

We have an opportunity to collaborate in new ways with publishers and indie presses in particular - to use our relationships with readers to signpost amazing books from small publishers that rarely got billboards or review space or radio coverage even before the crisis. Since we closed our doors in March, the books that have done best for us are from small publishers and our current bestseller is the Indie Press lucky dip.

A viable digital arena offers the opportunity to massively increase accessibility by captioning video events and allowing audiences to attend whenever able - once the infrastructure is there, we can deliver that long term.

On the rare occasions I can emerge from the packing tape and parcels and emails and consider things like this, that’s the closest I feel to ‘normal’. That’s my most hopeful. People do seem more aware of the role they have to play in keeping unique / creative/ independent outfits alive.  And our industry is so creative and resilient. If we can just get through this we might actually reach more readers and be even more embedded in our communities.