Ready, steady...

Ready, steady...

This time last year, I wasn't sure how long our bookshop in a small market town in mid-Wales would survive. Alongside many indie bookshop owners up and down the land, I had no idea when (or even if) we would open our doors again. There were very many tears and very many sleepless nights.

A year on, I'm feeling optimistic. I'm busy, the shop is busy, and all in all, we've possibly had one of our best trading years since opening in 2010. I place this achievement solely at the feet of the book community - not just our trade but the broader community of book lovers that exist in every corner of the globe.

The weekend before the first lockdown closure, we flicked the switch on the Book-ish online shop, with the help of every bookseller’s friend, Dan Fridd. We shared the link on our social media channels and crossed our fingers. Could we really, in some small way, go up against the internet giants? Would people buy books from us, at full price and with additional shipping? I wasn’t confident.

Reader, they did. Not only did they buy books: they shared our tweets, our website links, and our photos. Our social media following doubled, and I now feel part of a much wider online 'Book-ish' community. From Mary in Minnesota, who tunes into every online event and places book orders monthly, to Steph, who must now have one of the UK's largest TBR piles, our bookshop is now their bookshop. They have invested faith in our continued existence and have finally rid me of my imposter syndrome. I am indeed a bookseller!

I found book Twitter to be incredible; I've shared the ups and downs of the past year; I've been incredibly open; it's been bloody hard. During the worst weeks, gifts of cake, gin, a cuddly toy, and chocolate have arrived, and we often find lovely notes left by customers on our orders. In return, we send notes, hot chocolate sachets, and postcards emblazoned with the apt Mason Cooley quote: ‘Reading gives you somewhere to go when you have to stay where you are.’

As booksellers, we turned to each other for advice and support. The Booksellers Network set up by the BA has been an invaluable source of inspiration, advice, and real cheerleading from fellow indies.  We’ve shared virtual coffee mornings and ‘toolbox talks’, but at almost any time, there’s somebody there - either at the BA or working behind closed doors at another bookshop - to call for a chat. None of us are alone in this.

For me, it's been a smaller support group of booksellers now known as 'The 4 Indies' who have got me through the darkest of days. We have laughed, we have cried, we have worked together and pooled resources into a highly ambitious project which has at times overwhelmed us all. With a bit of technical wizardry and a tremendous amount of time and effort, generosity from authors, and faith from publicists, we have hosted over 250 events since 20th April 2020. Sue (Linghams), Carrie (Booka), and Helen (Forum Books) have held my tattered sanity together.

We can't underplay how significant a benefit of being part of an active community is to our collective mental health. I have often reflected on how lucky we all are to have the BA, who care deeply about their members’ wellbeing. Thanks to them, we have access to services provided by the Retail Trust for not only shop owners but all booksellers working with them, alongside the benevolent grants and access to legal advice and counseling. Friends who work in other retail areas have not had anywhere near the level of support we've enjoyed.

Once the initial shock of the new bookselling landscape wore off, I’ve found the past 12 months some of my most creative. There have been many new ideas to explore. How do we reach a more diverse audience? How do we curate our bookshop for everybody? How do we sustain our online community when we can open our doors? I am hopeful that we, within the trade, have all found new ways of working; that we’re more willing to collaborate over the long term; and that the lessons learned throughout lockdown stay with us.

Fast forward to March 2021. It’s a Monday, and we have 134 orders to pack that have arrived over the weekend to all corners of the UK and a few overseas. This is mainly due to a tweet sent out on Friday: our rent was due, and within 24 hours, we had exceeded our target. I check in with online regulars, make plans for new team members, and hold meetings with reps, discussing what reopening will look like.

We won't entirely be back to normal with facemasks fogging up glasses, much more gesticulating to make ourselves understood, and of course, the constant hand sanitising. Still, once people are through the door, I hope they find a small sanctuary to browse. We will miss the delicious smell of coffee and freshly baked cakes wafting through from our café; hopefully this too will return shortly. Online bookselling is bookselling without the joy, without the 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. We know our customers will be as pleased to see us as we will be to welcome them back.

Emma Corfield-Walters is the owner of Book-ish, Crickhowell, which was named Best Independent Bookshop in the UK in 2020