How coronavirus made me fall in love with bookselling again

It’s a strange thing, when you realise, you’ve fallen out of love. It’s kind of embarrassing, really. Noticing that things are messy, and that you don’t care.

I fell out of love with my bookshop, round about the time I fell in love with my daughter. It’s probably not unusual. My bookshop was my baby, and then I got a human baby, who was louder and less sturdy. She needed all my bookshop-love and I gave it to her and I don’t regret it. I own a bookshop with my mum so I was very fortunate in that I could take an incredibly extended maternity leave. Mum generously ran the ship almost single-handedly while I got to know my new everything.

At the shop, I just did the bits I wanted to – running the book clubs, hosting the events, buying some stock when it took my fancy, rifling through the proofs and hoarding all the best ones (despite having a hugely reduced reading capability). When I did get some daughter-free time, I didn’t spend it on my bookshop - I spent it on myself; I read, I exercised, I slept, I even did some writing. I tried not to think about the bookshop. Sometimes I’d dip my toe back in and try and muster some enthusiasm. I left my daughter for a night to go a bookseller’s conference. I had no idea what anyone was talking about. I asked my partner to send me photos of our daughter. I took home books I thought she would like.

She got bigger and I started to think about the bookshop. How the floors needed steaming and how the stock was starting to look a bit tired. How long had that poster been up? I promised myself, a new year’s resolution; my daughter was going to do some hours at nursery and I would find some love for the bookshop.

Then, in the January we found out my partner needed cancer treatment, and I definitely didn’t care about the bookshop. People would ask how the shop was going and I’d complain about the town. The parking. The abundance of charity shops. The department store at the centre of our shopping square, that has lain empty for a few years now. It’s true the footfall for our shop nearly halved when it closed, but I don’t know if that’s a valid excuse, anymore. My eyes would prick with tears when I talked about our business, but I was always really crying about the tumour.

It’s gone, by the way. We left Cancer in 2019.              

So, 2020 was going to be the year I became a bookseller again, and then there was a world-wide pandemic that closed all our businesses and meant we all lived our whole lives inside our houses, without seeing our friends or families, for months on end. And, yet somehow, in amongst it, I fell in love with bookselling again. I know, right? Like a rom-com. While You Were Shielding.  

The shop was physically, firmly closed; the town and all its make-believe problems disappeared and I had to work out how we were going to sell books without a bookshop. I didn’t have the time, or the inclination to suddenly become a coding witch and build a functioning online shop overnight. I can barely update the news page on our dusty website. Mum and I live in separate houses, and due to my partner’s past chemotherapy he was still labelled as ‘at risk’, so we weren’t up for orchestrating deliveries or postal runs between us.

Then the wholesalers closed, and momentarily, there was no way of getting a book that somebody wanted, and if we had one in the shop, we didn’t want to go there to sell it. We stayed at home and decided that, due to the government grant, and the fact we have no additional staff to pay, we’d just cut our mental-losses and be grateful for our health. I wondered if this would be the way we found that no-one would miss us if we were gone.

Home Delivery Service.

And even though at first, stock was limited and we could only do single order lines, suddenly, unbelievably, it was there, and it meant we could sell a book without having to leave our homes. No picking. No packing. No post offices. No touching the books at all. Minimal transmissions. (For us; the heroes at Gardners Books did all of the heavy lifting and we are so very grateful for their incredible efforts.)

And so, a book, made it from the warehouse to a customer, ‘via’ me. Business as usual. Yes, there was the postage to pay and for a long time we were too frightened to come clean to our customers about how much it really cost us; we asked for £1 towards it and we took the hit for the rest. There were Paypal fees too, and a service charge on the home delivery service. We were so grateful for the sale we didn’t want to pass these on. Price-matching was the reason we’d never pursued selling online before. Surely, we needed to be a good deal, as well as a good service?

We made a few tentative sales. And then a few more. I did my transactions over Twitter DMs or emails or Whatsapp messages. Mum was managing our regular local customers via Facebook and texts messages. Twitter was my turf. Sales slowed down and I tweeted a bit about how I could sell books. That my bookshop was closed but I was still a bookseller. I gave advice and answered questions. I made up reading lists for a school order in a place I’ve never heard of. I chose birthday presents and ‘Sorry you’re not getting married due to Coronavirus’ presents. I chatted with new customers and we joked and gif’d and I liked the tweets when they showed me photos of their deliveries.

Some of the customers came back. Some of them came back again and again, each time the transactions became easier – the address was already saved, it was one-click shopping. “I love shopping with you” some told me, and “it’s dangerously easy to spend money with you.” I adored it when someone said “You pick something for me” and then wrote to tell me how much they’d loved my choice. I was thrilled when people messaged me casually, out of business hours – send me a few books, here’s my wishlist, what can I get…

I could feel my bookselling energy levelling up each day. I was more confident in my abilities to give recommendations. I felt safe enough to add another pound to that postage contribution. I tweeted buying suggestions, shopping lists, blatant call outs WHO WOULD LIKE TO BUY A BOOK FROM ME TODAY? Some people really did want to! And I thought about being embarrassed about it – was it begging? – but people would reply thanks for the reminder and I’m so glad I saw your tweet.

My excitement peaked the weekend I posted a photo of the forthcoming Curtis Sittenfeld novel, along with the promotional tote bag the publishers had produced. ‘Remember that Curtis Sittenfeld novel I’ve been talking about recently?’ [I had read an advanced copy] ‘Anyone want to pre-order a copy?’ More than 100 people said yes. I couldn’t believe it.

In my shop we struggle with new hardback releases and sometimes, it hurts. Huge books with giant billboard buzz are coming in and we’re meant to be counting down the days. Throwing a party. Opening early for heaven’s sake. But the reality is, often we’ll order five copies and maybe we’ll sell three. There are exceptions, but by that I mean we’ll sell between 10 and 20 copies, and feel pretty chuffed about it. And you never know if it’s because of the tote bag, anyway. I can’t say if it was the bag, the book, my Curtis-fangirling or the luck of the timeline that so many people saw my #Rodham tweet. Over the course of one weekend I ordered our biggest pre-sale numbers ever. I was so happy it was for a book I genuinely loved, an author I’ve always admired. I was delighted to order in those cardboard book wraps. I lovingly measured the dimensions of the book and the bag so it would fit in the packages snug, I wanted it to be perfect. I had new bookmarks printed for the occasion. I wrote notes to the recipients because I just had to say thank you; thank you for letting me feel like a successful bookseller. Thank you for making me feel like part of the industry again. Thank you for making me feel like a real player this weekend. You bought a book from me and I feel so great about it. Thank you.

When the parcels started being received the rapture reloaded. I got tagged in so many tweets and Instagram posts, and I got a few more book orders too. The system works! Long live this fortunate series of events!

I must admit, it is an intense affair - the online book trade. It can be time consuming and it’s bad for your eyes and your wrists. Plus, we’re all picking from the same stock so there’s a time pressure element, too. If you get the query and there’s only one copy available you need to complete that order asap. Honey, I just need to do this one thing, and then I’ll play. I’m selling books from my phone when I am hiding in the bath from my toddler. From the sofa when I’m not watching Paw Patrol. From the kitchen when I am making those endless, incessant dinners.

But, it has really been worth it. There’s almost instant payment. A little banter, but no small talk. And the sales, they’re so varied and exciting. I’m asked for new releases, often, sometimes multiple new hardback releases in one order. Unheard of! Hardback picture books. Backlist titles from obscure authors. Poetry! THE ECSTASY.  It turns out, there are a lot more booklovers on the whole of the internet than there are in my small seaside town.

Plus, my instantly available ‘stock’ has gone from a small shop with outdated shelves to a gargantuan warehouse in Eastbourne. It’s an incredible service that my suppliers are providing. I hope they know how grateful we are to them. Their single order line service quickly developed in a multi-line service. Stock was being replaced and made available more quickly and new releases were catching up with their publication dates. It was majestic. It genuinely felt like one of those Herculean efforts I kept hearing about on the news. I cheered each step towards their full service from my dining room table, huddled over my laptop. I messaged my bookseller friends in excitement. I tweeted Thank You as often as I could. They saved our summer, really, they saved our business, and unwittingly, they’ve entirely jump-started the bookselling chamber of my heart. That ‘any sale is a bonus’ mentality has turned into ‘how can we continue to work like this going forward?’

Two things there; that’s us continuing online trading, and us continuing to trade at all. We didn’t have the conversation where we seriously considered not doing, but it’s always in the air, isn’t it? Some days more than others.

I’m choosing to ignore it now, like how some people feel about the evidenced benefits of wearing a mask in a public place, I refuse them; those spores of quitting. I’m protected by the flimsy mask of having-fun-selling-books-on-Twitter. That’s a thing now that we do and I don’t know how long it can continue, but I’ll be clawing on for as long as I can. Thinking of the good old #Rodham days. It’s the thrill of a new piece of land to pitch my stall on, a space that I’ve admired from afar and believed I had no right to sell on. What was that about, anyway? Who made me believe I wasn’t welcome to sell books to people I couldn’t see? Why did I limit myself to the book buyers of such a small radius, when there was, virtually, a world-wide-web full of people who might want to buy a book today?

And while I’m in no immediate hurry to re-open my physical bookshop for browsing, I am excited about our future. In fact, we’re investing in it. We’re getting a new coat of paint, inside and out. We’re having a new sign. Same name, but I hope people read it as WE’RE STILL HERE.  We’re going to turn ten years old in December and we want to look as good as the day we opened. I can feel the echoes of that same initial hunger. Customers, I am ready to entice you. Here is my shop. I am your bookseller.

We don’t have a date to re-open our bookshop to the public. At the moment, global-pandemic-considered, it still doesn’t feel like a great time to encourage people to spend time in our enclosed space. But that day will come soon, and my daughter will be in nursery. So, I’m preparing the area in my heart, and in my head, for the return of my bookshop. I want to feel safe and I want to feel proud. I want to feel love; I think I can see its approach.  I feel excited.

So again, thank you, to everyone at our wholesalers who made trading possible during these strange times, and thank you to everyone who has shopped with us remotely. At a time when the world is struggling to breathe, I’m surprised to find I’m invigorated – come at me, fresh air, the future.

Katie Clapham is a writer and bookseller at Storytellers, Inc., an independent bookshop in Lytham St Annes, Lancashire. You can find her on Twitter @storytellersinc.