Booksellers call for clarity from Johnson as coronavirus hits business

Booksellers call for clarity from Johnson as coronavirus hits business

Booksellers have called for clarity from Boris Johnson’s government as measures to tackle the coronavirus outbreak hit the high street. 

On Monday, Johnson told people to work from home and to avoid all non-essential contact and non-essential travel. The Prime Minister also asked people to avoid pubs and restaurants in an effort to ramp up “social distancing” but did not mention retail in his statement to the nation. 

Former BA president Nic Bottomley, co-owner of Bath bookshop Mr B’s Emporium, said: “I think as bookstores we recognise very much that everybody is going to be affected by this economically in a very drastic way. Everyone is very concerned about their businesses and about their staff but maybe once again it’s one of those things that bookshops are on the front line, bookshops are experiential these days, the way we’ve come to fight with online competition, and being experiential there’s a risk that at some point in the very near future we may have to close off that experience to the majority of people or everyone, who knows. That’s a big problem.”

As bookshops face the decision of potentially closing for the duration of the outbreak, Bottomley said: “The thing we really need from the government right now, that statement yesterday about the situation basically told people not to go into pubs and restaurants but told pubs and restaurants to stay open. It’s fairly obvious there is an insurance implication in that, if the government has not told you to close and you decide to close then you may stand to gain nothing in terms of business interruption insurance. We don’t need that kind of wishy washy 'throw you under the bus' approach.

“Secondly, where was the mention of shops? There was an implication that pubs and restaurants should no longer be encouraging people into their places. Should shops? What is the government's thinking? There was no reference and I am hoping we will hear something. Until then, booksellers have got to sort the best thing for their business, we are spending a lot of time talking to each other, talking to stores in the US where there is more of a movement to close stores. We don’t want to close shops but if we do close shops across the board I can guarantee you booksellers are going to come up with some of the most creative ways to still access customers and will be doing everything they possibly can to secure any book purchase that will keep themselves afloat through this and will keep all of their staff in jobs.”

Chancellor Rishi Sunak outlined a £350bn package of new economic measures (in light of the coronavirus crisis last night (Tuesday 17th March), including £330bn in loans, £20bn in other aid, a business rates holiday, and grants for retailers and pubs. Last week, Sunak pledged to abolish business rates for small businesses in a budget dominated by plans to alleviate the impact of the pandemic. Speaking alongside the prime minister, Sunak went further, extending the business rates "holiday" to all firms in the hospitality sector and also announced funding grants of between £10,000 and £25,000 for small businesses. He said: "We must act like any wartime government and do whatever it takes to support our economy." 

Guidance on shop closures was absent once again in yesterday's now-daily press conference from the prime minister, but bookshops including Pages of Hackney, Newham Bookshop and Gutter Bookshop have decided to close their doors temporarily. 

Mr B’s continues to trade with the shop’s booksellers also making recommendations and taking orders over the phone and online as well as compiling book lists on themes such as kindness, community and solidarity. 

“We are looking at our responsibility to limit public access,” added Bottomley.  “At the moment we are open fully, and talking about processes in store to maintain people’s safety and health. We are fortunate in one sense that we invested in our website fairly heavily a few years ago. We do have a number of things on our website that we are now bringing to the fore.” 

Others, including The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh have decided to close and also criticised the lack of guidance from government. 

Portobello owner Jack Clark told The Bookseller: “ We made the decision this morning (Tuesday 17th March) that we will be closing from 6 p.m. tonight.  It's been extremely tough deciding the right path, with so little guidance or clear narrative from government.  

“We have members of staff from Italy and Spain, and have been very saddened to see the impact this is having upon them and their families.  It became clear that the UK is just a short while behind other countries and so, with a desire to protect our staff and customers as much as possible at the forefront of our minds, we made the difficult choice to close the shop.

“With the lack of clarity from government and no certainty about how or if they will help out independent shops such as ours, it was very hard to come to a conclusion about the best way to proceed. We have felt for some time that we should perhaps close, but making the decision is a huge thing to do. With no notion of how this will pan out long term we are of course worried for our business and staff.”

For now, Portobello is trying to hand-deliver to customers locally and people can still order online and over the phone. 

“We've been really heartened by how many people are choosing to do so, said Clark. “We're in the middle of designing an online shop and loading our stock onto it, so that hopefully we can continue to function in some small way through this crisis. 

Bookshop owner David Headley made the decision on Monday to close the physical premises of Goldsboro Books in central London until the end of the month and will now process orders online. Commenting on the government’s guidance for business, he said:  “A lot of people very concerned that the government got it wrong for too long. Why the government isn’t actually demanding closure is beyond me. No one can claim insurance. I don’t know enough about it though. Are insurance going to pay out? Government are going to see a lot of closed businesses and a huge rise in unemployment. It’s going to cost them more in the future if they don’t take more action now.”

Brixton’s Knights Of closed on Monday and Dalston's Burley Fisher Books will close for two weeks while Glasgow’s indie LGBTQIA+ bookshop Category Is Books has closed its physical premises but is offering to deliver locally by skateboard and bike. In North Yorkshire, The Stripey Badger has set up a book delivery service for anyone within a ten-mile radius of the store, with a complimentary scone thrown in with every order. Waterstones has temporarily closed four of its campus bookshops owing to a decline in footfall and has cancelled all bookshop events until the summer. A spokesperson said: "In order to prioritise the health of our customers and booksellers and following updated government guidance on public gatherings, we have made the decision to cancel or postpone all bookshop events until summer. We are working closely with publishers and are looking to rearrange at a later point where possible."

So far Blackwell's has only closed it's Wellcome Collection branch. Blackwell’s c.e.o. David Prescott said the decision to close some of its branches is out of the retailer’s hands: “We're planning for a number of possible scenarios at the current time both on and off campus—as you can appreciate there are shops where the decision to continue to trade remains with us (until the government deems otherwise) and some places where we have shops within university campus/buildings where the decision practically will be down to the university.”

Meanwhile, Booksellers Association m.d. Meryl Hall has penned an open letter calling on customers and the trade to support bookshops.