This week, the UK and the Scottish governments set out their roadmaps to how the current lockdowns might be lifted. Both plans were hesitant—not unreasonably—yet both offered a glimpse of when our societies might be able to mix freely together. And shop.
In England, the key milestones are when schools open to all pupils again (with some caveats, 8th March); a meeting of six is allowed outdoors, along with sports (29th); and when non-essential retail, including bookshops and libraries, can reopen (not before 12th April). In Scotland, schools have already started a phased return, but non-essential retail is not expected to reopen before the end of April, unless that government extends its definition of essential. In Wales, a review will take place before the end of its current restrictions on 12th March, which may see retailers given a date; while in Northern Ireland, an analysis will be published next week, with its current restrictions already extended to 1st April.
In short bookshops must wait, though for the travel sector, which makes up the rump of the magazine this week, relief is even further away, with international holidays not allowed until 17th May.
It is a mixed and sobering picture. The truth is that even a year after we were first sent home from our offices, schools were closed, and shops were shuttered, we are still only just feeling our way out of this disaster, and we are not even close to figuring out how we get back to some kind of normal. As I wrote a year ago, “We have seen nothing like it, and the implications will be both sudden and far-reaching.”
However, as I’ve stressed before, we are an optimistic bunch and the plans, though they are subject to further reviews, give us something to build on. For booksellers the key question is how can they entice customers back in-store in those crucial first weeks, when hesitancy might still be a dominant emotion. Publishers can help with clarity around April publications, and an emphasis on bookshop-friendly titles from the likes of Jon McGregor, Leone Ross, Anita Sethi, Paula Byrne, Hilary McKay and Clare Weze, books from whom feature in our Springboard event for booksellers next week. We can consider more radical steps too: in Brazil, some publishers now ship early for indies, and—fraught though it might be to window some books—there is an opportunity to try something similar here, even if only for a week. We might even turn the idea into a trade-wide promotion.
I will say this: no one is undamaged from the pandemic, from those who had a year of home-working in unsuitable environments, to those whose ability to earn has been severely circumscribed, to those whose business have been placed in jeopardy time and time again. There is also an emotional cost that we cannot even begin to fathom. The unlocking is our moment to address this, to make good the promises we made going into it, and right some of the very many inequities that have been reinforced over the past year. There is a word for all this possibility. It is renaissance, a time of transition that brings with it something new and good, after the bad.