July 19th was hailed as ‘Freedom Day’ in the press for the easing of mask wearing restrictions. But freedom for whom? With the government saying that wearing masks in shops is a personal choice rather than a legal obligation in England (at the time of writing they are still required in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland), Freedom Day is the opposite for those with low immune systems or pre-existing conditions who become vulnerable if others do not wear masks to help prevent the spread of Covid unless medically exempt.
Authors and book lovers have watched bookshops’ responses keenly. After all, it’s only a few months since bookshops opened after lockdown and customers have had the joy of being able to browse once again. Whilst bestselling titles have done well selling online, it’s the lesser-known authors who rely on readers coming across them in bookshops; and indeed readers enjoy the serendipity of finding authors and titles new to them within a bookshop’s shelves.
I am both an author and an avid book shopper. I shielded during lockdown and will carry on wearing a mask and will take extra precautions when I go to bookshops to sign copies of my new novel Her New Best Friend, which is published on August 5th. Overwhelmingly, people I’ve spoken to with a disability or chronic illness feel extremely anxious and worried about going into bookshops in England now masks aren’t compulsory.
One writer and avid indie book shopper who has respiratory issues and wishes to remain nameless told me she won’t go into a bookshop if others aren’t wearing masks. Another with a low immune system said she can’t rely on others who aren’t medically exempt from wearing a mask to ‘do the right thing’ and will effectively have to shield, with her book buying moving back online.
It was a tough choice for English bookshops implementing their own post-July 19th policies, balancing their customers’ fears and allowing now lawful freedom of mask-wearing choice. Waterstones hit the news headlines on 13th July when the company announced it will encourage customers to continue using face masks, “respecting the safety of staff and fellow book lovers”, prompting the broadcaster Julia Hartley-Brewer to threaten to take her custom elsewhere.
Some independent bookshops followed suit such as Our Bookshop in Tring and the the Yellow Lighted Bookshop in Tetbury, which on Twitter announced that it “will continue to expect customers to wear masks after 19th July … (to) help protect our staff and customers from COVID-19”, eliciting a majority of replies supporting their stance, but as with Waterstones, a minority replying that they’ll shop elsewhere.
Booksellers I spoke to for this piece were in agreement on carrying on mask wearing. Dan Bassett, senior bookseller at the chain’s Bristol Cribbs Causeway store commented that he and a lot of his colleagues will wear a mask, but "it’s up to individuals if they choose to wear one so I will not be judging anyone with or without a mask”.
Lydia Forbes at Waterstones St Albans said she’s grateful that mask-wearing will be encouraged rather than enforced. Whilst the vast majority of their customer base are incredibly respectful and considerate, “it’s just the one percent that unfortunately do pose a threat to booksellers”. She still wears a mask to show her store priorities customer safety but “we have been subject to some behaviour from customers when the law was on our side, so I’m glad not to push the matter when it unfortunately no longer is.” Booksellers, of course, have a right to a safe working environment.
This raises the question of who is going to police the mask wearing ‘encouragement’? Booksellers are in the job of selling books and creating positive customer relationships, not acting as bouncers or putting their personal safety at risk. One experienced bookseller at an indie expressed the view that bookshops were ‘damned if they do and damned if they don’t’ over mask-wearing and there will always be a customer who will disagree with their stance, whatever that stance may be. The bookseller also pointed out that mask wearing is to protect shoppers but not the staff themselves, and that there’s an assumption that the mainly young workforce aren’t vulnerable. But what about booksellers who are, and staff who have not yet been double-vaxxed? The health secretary Sajid Javid testing positive for Coronavirus despite having received two jabs shows that people who are fully vaccinated are still at risk from catching Covid. Yet there’s no longer a legal right for vulnerable staff to be able to work at home or be furloughed.
Boris Johnson may say ‘use common sense’ but that’s far from simple with the government’s current law in England. In the meantime, concerned book lovers will be sticking with the mask and hand sanitiser, buying their next read online.... and maybe considering moving to Wales, Scotland or Northern Ireland.
Penny Batchelor is the author of two psychological thrillers: My Perfect Sister (out now) and Her New Best Friend (to be published on 5th August by RedDoor Press). She champions positive disability representation in fiction. Along with EC Scullion, Penny is the co-founder and editor of the Thriller Women blog which publishes interviews with female thriller writers.