BA calls for bookshops to be classified essential retailers

BA calls for bookshops to be classified essential retailers

The Booksellers Association (BA) has written to key government ministers and Lords calling for bookshops be classed as essential retailers, allowing them to reopen during lockdown in England.

In an open letter, reproduced in full below, BA m.d. Meryl Halls outlines the many ways in which bookshops provide an essential contribution to society, from the links between reading and improved mental wellbeing, to providing educational resources to children and adults, to contributing to local economies.

The BA argues the Christmas trading period is the most important time of year and can make or break the sustainability of a local bookshop. It states: "Their livelihoods and those of their staff are already in jeopardy from the first lockdown, and their chances of survival into 2021 would be much improved by having a solid Christmas sales period."

Its letter makes a comparison with garden centres being belatedly classified as essential during the first lockdown due to them being deemed beneficial to the nation’s health, while avoiding catastrophic losses should the sector have missed out on spring trading.

The letter also points out essential retailers, some of which also sell books, are allowed to remain open and are therefore "arguably exploiting the situation" while booksshops are shut. The letter says: "This is potentially ruinous commercially and is also morally problematic."

Halls said: “On behalf of our members, we urge the government to categorise bookshops as essential retailers. Bookshops play a unique part in the culture of our country and books have a crucial role to play in the health and well-being of our population. Bookshops have been designated as essential in other countries, and the ‘essential’ categorisation will acknowledge the crucial role that bookshops play in our culture, economy and wider society.”

Echoing the words of Philip Pullman, she added: “Bookshops are lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope. We urge the government to consider classifying them as essential retailers.”

The appeal echoes calls from Waterstones boss James Daunt for bookshops to be classified as essential retail, and also comes after writers including Antony Beevor, Ali Smith, Edward St Aubyn and Salman Rushdie wrote to the Prime Minister last week asking for books to be considered essential items.

Organised by Everyman's Library publisher David Campbell, that letter, dated 4th November, was signed by a host of celebrated authors and sent to Prime Minister Boris Johnson alongside Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden.

The authors state: “Please may we urge you to declare books essential items during lockdowns, and to allow bookshops and libraries to remain open, if they so wish, in Tier One and Two areas at the least.

“Book sales and library borrowings have, as has been reported in the press, increased significantly this year during the pandemic, despite bookshops being closed in the last lockdown – proof of their importance to the mental health and happiness of the nation.

“We also should not, as a country, allow bookshops to go out of business; we have some of the world’s best.”

The full list of signatories features Pat Barker, William Boyd, Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, William Dalrymple, Sebastian Faulks, Tom Holland, Barry Humphries, Howard Jacobson, Simon Jenkins, Neil MacGregor, Ben Macintyre, Margaret MacMillan, Alexander McCall Smith, Ben Okri, Philip Pullman, Simon Schama and Tom Stoppard.

The publisher said he put the letter together quickly and could have got even more authors involved but wanted to strike before lockdown started.  Campbell told The Bookseller: “If I'd had three days I could have got many, many more signatures. Every single one of those authors answered within sometimes 30 seconds or one minute.

“I'm not saying that all bookshops should be open, it's up to the bookseller if they feel there's a risk to their staff. But particularly the small independents, which did some fantastic work in the last lockdown by posting stuff out, I feel the government and the Department for Culture, Media & Sport should make it as easy as possible for them.

“We all know Amazon had a staggering year and we're grateful to them for selling quite so many books, but we don't want it to be to the detriment of booksellers.”

The BA's letter in full:

Dear Secretary of State,

The Booksellers Association supported the second lockdown when it was announced as a means to achieve widespread public compliance and drive down infection rates, and accepted that bookshops would need to close. However, since the lockdown began, it has become increasingly obvious that current guidance has created huge inconsistencies within the retail sector. Specialist bookshops, such as Waterstones, Foyles, Blackwells, and more than 900 independents have had to close their doors at the very moment when they were poised to start making up lost ground from the first lockdown and three months of lost sales. Meanwhile other retailers, deemed essential under current regulations, are arguably exploiting the situation, putting specialist retailers at a massive disadvantage.

This is potentially ruinous commercially and is also morally problematic. Our members are entirely behind the government’s push to suppress infection rates and enforce social distancing and safe behaviour, but they and their customers believe that retail is already a safe, managed environment. Massive investment has gone into making bookshops Covid-compliant and responsible retailers have ensured that staff and consumer safety is at the top of their priority list. And we know that there is no demonstrable evidence for retail locations being the locus of infections.

The lockdown inequities on the high street are confusing for consumers, and clearly unjust in competitive terms. Our members are prevented from opening, yet see garden centres and food shops selling books, when bookshops are quite clearly the best places to sell books to consumers at this crucial time of year. Their livelihoods and those of their staff are already in jeopardy from the first lockdown, and their chances of survival into 2021 would be much improved by having a solid Christmas sales period.

In March, garden centres were not on the original essential businesses list and were added at a later date. Garden centres made the case that spring was their busiest trading period, that if they were unable to trade at that time of year their businesses would not survive, and that gardening would be beneficial to the nation’s mental health while at home. For this lockdown, as we go into dark winter nights, products and activities such as books and reading are a vital a way of keeping the nation’s spirits up whilst they’re locked in their homes.

We urge the government, therefore, to categorise bookshops as essential retailers. This has been undertaken in countries, and the ‘essential’ categorisation will acknowledge the crucial role that bookshops play in our culture, economy and wider society.

Bookshops deliver an array of benefits:

• They provide mental health benefits to their communities and customers; reading has proven mental health benefits and bookshops provide safe spaces for those in need of help and advice

• They provide reading and educational resources to children and their families – especially important at a time when education is inevitably affected and the need for books in the home greater than ever

• They provide access to information, entertainment, distraction, the thoughts of others, the companionship of words, the comfort of escape that comes from immersion in a creative art form

• They are very often right at the heart of their high street communities; taking leadership roles within their local business organisations, as well as engaging with local writers, schools, reading groups, and libraries

• They deliver financial benefit into their communities, as well as enhancing their local cultural and social ecosystems – they pay taxes, and keep money in the local economy

Bookshops are resilient and creative, and this is not a case of special pleading; this is a request for an acknowledgement that books matter, and that therefore bookshops matter and should be allowed to stay open.

I understand that it must be very difficult to pull the legislation and guidance together at such short notice, and moreover, we understand that the public health agenda is clearly the most important in order to get coronavirus under control. We are eager to help achieve that, but we also know that our bookshops are lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope. We urge you to consider classifying them as essential retailers.

Thank you for your consideration and I look forward to hearing from you.

Yours sincerely,

Meryl Halls

Managing Director, Booksellers Association