If we are fortunate, then this past week may come to be seen as a turning point: the victory of president-elect Joe Biden; the announcement of a potential vaccine; the lifting of the most severe Covid-19 restrictions in Wales; and the moment at which the industry found its voice and declared that, yes, high street bookshops are essential—or a least as important as garden centres.
There is much still to do, of course, and some still to fear. Biden is not yet president—Trump has 60-odd days left in power—the vaccine has not yet been road-tested, and restrictions are still in place across much of the UK. The discussion around bookshops is not over either: the Booksellers Association (BA) has been cautious in shifting its messaging around making the high street a priority at what is still a very difficult time for many, and as our survey in this week's magazine shows (pp06-07), there remain mixed opinions on the matter. Even if the government does shift its position, some booksellers will not want to reopen early.
Nevertheless, at the Bookshop Heroes online event we ran with the BA last week, there was visceral anger over the issue: that is that livelihoods have been put at stake over, as BA m.d. Meryl Halls told me this week (see pp08–09 in the magazine), “sloppy government legislation”. Or as Waterstones m.d. James Daunt put it on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” programme when questioned by the presenter: “An arbitrary line can be drawn and it can be catastrophically unfair on some people. The question is ‘has the line been remotely sensibly drawn?’ and I think, in this case, not.”
And then there is the future. It is self-evident now that whatever comes next, it will not be a facsimile of how it was before. There is the emotional cost; the practical consideration; and then the fact that habits have changed and new ways of doing the old things have been formed. The “newer” new normal may be as hard to grasp as was the shift to home working and lockdown back in March. In the series of chief executive interviews I’ve done ahead of the FutureBook Conference next week, what struck me most was how changed we all are: things will improve, but I do not underestimate that any period of re-adjustment will bring with it a new struggle.
For booksellers, this period will be as tough as any that has already been, with reopening before Christmas not certain for all. Halls describes indies fulfilling customer orders—effectively sending bestsellers and brands out to customers in brown paper envelopes—as doing what you love, without the love. In this business we tend to romanticise what it is to be a bookseller, publisher, writer/illustrator, agent etc, but actually, just as reading digitally renewed our faith in physical books, so these extended periods without high street retailers have brought into sharp relief the importance of browsing. We might use fancy language to describe it, but the impact is real, and this lack of discovery takes a material chunk out of the business of books, and perhaps for the first time we have the data to prove it.
To move forwards, we also need to keep one eye on the past.