When Meryl Halls took over as managing director of the Booksellers Association in April 2018, she wondered what would define her time at the top of the trade body. “My predecessor Tim Godfray’s signature thing was keeping VAT off books, and he was very proud of that. I’ve had a bloody global pandemic—I didn’t reckon on that one.”
The comment is a rare moment of solipsism from Halls, who is credited with working tirelessly for booksellers and bookshops during this most testing period for the high street. This week she has been named FutureBook’s Person of the Year, an award that recognises those individuals making a real difference in their sectors. Past winners have been Dialogue Books founder Sharmaine Lovegrove and the author Kit de Waal. Former BA president Nic Bottomley, owner of Mr B’s Emporium Bookshop in Bath, describes Halls as having been a “complete dynamo for the beleaguered booksellers of the UK”; Lovegrove sees her as an “incredible, knowledgeable and passionate champion of independent bookshops and the publishing industry”.
In truth, Halls brushes off such praise. “Booksellers have done this; they are the ones who pulled themselves through. We encouraged, but they are at the sharp end, dealing with all the new regulations and making their shops safe.” She underplays her own role but not that of her colleagues and the BA board, who had to come up with an immediate response to the pandemic: “We had meeting after meeting to figure out how we, the BA, should react. In a way, we knew what to do. This was the rainy day... it wasn’t going to get any rainier. It was hard, but it was also propulsive—you couldn’t attempt any of the normal stuff. We formed a huddle, they cleaved to us and to each other, and we talked.”
Like many in the trade, Halls began the year on a more positive front foot: independent bookshop numbers were on the rise, Amazon was (relatively) quiet, and the high street had come off another decent Christmas. On the BA’s agenda was diversity, sustainability and lobbying the government on issues such as rates and competition. Then Covid-19 hit. Halls says that for a long time she remained in a state of grief: “I still think about all the things that should have happened this year. The heartbreak is that the narrative changed overnight. We’d had three years of independent bookshop growth, and then suddenly you are watching them have to deal with this new situation and this onslaught of new regulation.”
Halls quickly marshalled the BA’s small team to be a one-stop resource for booksellers struggling with the emotional, business and practical implications of the shutdown. She focused on immediate needs, refunding indies their membership fees, supporting a hardship fund,and getting on top of the government’s advice. The organisation also produced social media materials for booksellers to inform customers of the new ways to buy books during the first lockdown. “Booksellers are practical people, so if you help them with those things, you can make a big difference.”
Conversations with publishers also intensified. “It took them a while [for publishers] to work out the impact on retail, so it was incumbent on us to tell that story, and we didn’t hold back. We were talking in a different tone than we would normally do to them, and we influenced their thinking. Booksellers are running on tight margins, they knew exactly what they needed, and we were able to pass that on.” What they needed, and largely got, were extended terms, both on credit and on returns.
As the lockdown deepened, the BA also began working on an exit strategy; it launched a £50,000 fund for independents to prepare to reopen their bookshops safely, and made sure wholesaler Gardners was able to supply personal protective equipment (PPE). It also launched new social media materials, including the hashtag #choosebookshops, as well as Covid signage to use in store. It was during this period that it acquired the Bertline electronic point-of-sale system following the collapse of wholesaler Bertrams, and Halls began to press Bookshop.org founder Andy Hunter to accelerate his move into the UK, offering indies an online lifeline ahead of any second lockdown, which has materialised.
Halls also increased her own profile, responding more quickly and more directly to media inquiries. This week, the BA took that up a notch again, writing an open letter to the government demanding that bookshops are classed as essential retail. It is a position it has changed since the first lockdown, when, in fact, the mood among members was much more mixed. Halls draws a distinction between then, and now. “We didn’t know what was going on back then; we didn’t know a lot about the virus, how it could be controlled, or how long it would last. People were frightened then, but now they are angry. Shops have made huge investments to make themselves safe, and they are ones getting shafted by sloppy government legislation. It’s not about saying books are essential like medicine, but that there is an underlying unfairness. They’ve been put at a massive competitive disadvantage at the worst possible moment.”
It is a measure of the achievement this year that although the BA has done much to focus on the independent sector, Halls has kept the bigger chains onside, including Waterstones, Blackwell’s and W H Smith. It helps, of course, that there is a common foe, as well as a philosophical attachment to high street bookselling that the lockdown has accentuated.
“If there is a divide, it is now between the high street and online,” says Halls. During lockdown, she adds, booksellers told her of sending out customer orders for books they would not normally sell—the brands, the bestsellers—and finding it a soulless activity. “Booksellers were doing what they love to do with all the love gone.” It is now clear, stresses Halls, that the loss of the high street would have a material impact on what many publishers can sell: she thinks, too, that customers now know what they would miss.
As we emerge from this period, Halls is now planning for the next year, and back to those pressing issues of sustainability and diversity, as well as making sure indies are stabilised in the new climate. Some things will return, others will be lost. One thing won’t change though, she assures: “We’ve acted quite boldly, and we’ll carry on being bold.”