Booksellers divided over June reopening

Booksellers divided over June reopening

Booksellers are divided on whether they will reopen from 1st June if permitted by the government, with just a third of booksellers currently keen to reopen, according to a survey by The Bookseller. However, some booksellers have said they would open "tomorrow" if they were permitted to.

The government has said some shops could return to physical selling from 1st June, and others from 4th July, as part of a phased exit from the coronavirus lockdown. Details of which shops can reopen at which stage are yet to be revealed by the government.

Close to a third of respondents to The Bookseller's survey, including a mix of independent and chain booksellers, said they would go back to work, if allowed, but 29% said they would not, while 36% said they did not know. The survey is still open and available to fill in online.

Among those with reservations about reopening, one bookseller responding to the survey said: “I would not feel safe working in such close and frequent contact with customers." Another added: “If safety precautions are suitably in place, then a tentative return is acceptable and understandable. Whether the boss of a (large) independent will ensure such measures without strong public pressure is a question that remains to be answered. I foresee a return fraught with anxiety. I am preparing for some period of work in which conditions aren't satisfactory, and expect that active pressure from staff to improve measures will be required."

Of the measures that needed to be put in place, top of a list of booksellers' priorities was the strict monitoring of the number of customers allowed in the store, the implementation of social distancing rules, and the provision of Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). However, one respondent expressed scepticism about how easy it would be to make bookshops safe environments for staff, saying: "There should be significant safety measures in place to make sure the staff are protected. In my experience before the lockdown, half of the customers ignored the social distancing guidelines and many insisted on using cash despite clear rules of card payments only."

However, many booksellers among those contacted by The Bookseller this week were keen to reopen as soon as possible.

Peter Brook, co-owner of BrOOK's in Pinner, said while online sales had kept the business ticking over, he had prepared for reopening by moving all the furniture out of his store and redesigning the large floorspace with social distancing in mind.

He said: “We're pretty determined to [re-open] as soon as we're able to. The only challenge for us is deciding when to order new books. So we have quite a lot of books already in stock but I don't want to place an order for books that are currently new and then not have the books that are new when we come to re-open. So I'm holding off a little bit because there are quite a few blips in the supply chain as far as books from printers to publisher and publisher to distributors.”

The shop's international travel section is being replaced by other titles as the store tries to adapt to what customers might want when they do return. However, with reopenings still contingent on the number of infections and virus reproduction rate, he warned people might not know for certain they could open again until just a few days before.

Brook said: “One thing that's going to be hard I think is, from the very nature of being a bookseller, the profile of our customers is probably more mature than other sorts of outlets so it's going to take a while for those older people to have the confidence to come out and walk around a retail unit. But we can't stay closed because that's not an option. We'll have to open and see how it goes. But obviously I have to make sure the staff are willing to work so there are a lot of variables.”

Sheryl Shurville, co-owner of Chorleywood and Gerrards Cross Bookshops, said she would open tomorrow if she could. She said: "If we can open on 1st June, that's still weeks away. We have bought our plastic screens, we've got our face masks, we are set to go really. We have two smallish shops that could easily manage one or two people – whatever the guidelines prescribe – coming into the shop. So many other shops are open, even dry cleaners. I am slightly frustrated we aren't able to open sooner; if the message had been, 'You can open tomorrow', we are prepared and we would have done."

Shurville pointed out the BA has undertaken to give bookshops a rebate of £50 per perspex screen through its £50,000 fund and is offering kits including signs saying "queue here" and arrows to reinforce the 2-metre wide social distancing measures. Meanwhile Gardners has been assisting with PPE kits for bookshops, including face shields and surgical masks. 

With turnover not even 20% of what it is usually is, she added business would continue to be difficult even when the shops are allowed to reopen. "It will be [difficult]. A lot of people won't come out. We are doing a lot of deliveries and I think that will continue. A lot of people are really scared. We're not expecting our trade to be anything like what it was."

She added: “Government support has been quick, we have had our grants, but I don't think it's going to be enough. We organise lots of events and I don't know what the events market is going to look like. We took authors into schools, another area we had great success with and won't be happening in the foreseeable future. The shops need all the other things to thrive. It is a concern. We have to work our way through it. I've had to cancel over 20 events and yet to book anything for the autumn yet. There's a willingness but it's just how it's actually going to happen. It's all unfolding very slowly."

While processing orders made online, Shurville noted issues with the supply chain were causing a "huge problem" and its shop is having to wait weeks at a time for orders from Hachette and TBS. "Thank goodness for Gardners," she said. "Now it is open that really helps, but the supply chain is still a huge problem. Bertrams is our main wholesaler so that's a real worry for us on top of everything else.

"We have some very loyal customers. They are trying to order from us and we try to order the books in, but it doesn't quite happen. When you think we usually have such a slick operation, next-day [delivery], it really is hard."

Richard Drake, owner of Drake The Bookshop in Stockton, has also been making plans, but wondered if people would feel comfortable enough to physically shop. There is also the issue of how financially secure people will feel.

"It must be a crazily difficult thing trying to balance health and economy, and I guess we will find out that on a small scale come June," said Drake. "Our main concern is everyone's safety, we have been amazed at the continued support of our customers and their desire to keep us trading and we will be ever grateful, but the last thing we want is for people to come back to what is a very small shop and feel anxious. 

"We are looking at ways of re-routing the shop, working out maximum numbers and whether opening part time is the way forward – this was one suggestion made at one of the recent Bookseller's Network virtual coffee mornings. Screens, sanitiser, gloves and visors are all being looked into as safe ways forward. 

"We will make sure we are ready and everyone is happy — staff and customers — before we open the doors again, which given the flexibility and ingenuity of the book industry, and especially the indie sector, could well be 1st June, but we aren't going to over-promise. Meanwhile, we will continue to offer our services online.

"It will be interesting to see how quickly people feel comfortable enough to visit the high street again. We really have to promote the support local idea and Totally Locally, as lots of the regulars to the urban high street have found an alternative to physically visiting, and we need to make sure the whole of Stockton is able to offer a reason to come back, as it's not really in the top 10 day trip destinations. Also, the demographic of much of Teesside is such that it may be a long time before large parts of the community are financially back on their feet."

Emma Corfield-Walters, who runs Book-ish in Crickhowell, said she was unsure if the changes would effect her as the Welsh Assembly has not announced a relaxation of its lockdown measures. She said: “I hope things are going to be different here as I expect there to be another spike in the next two or three weeks.

“We're in an older area and in a tourist town. Even if we do open it will just be me for a while because I don't think people will want to spend a long time browsing.”

Corfield-Walters has had her till measures for a screen and signed up for some PPE via Gardners but said she would be taking a survey of her staff's confidence in returning to work before opening up again. She said: “The longer we have, the more information we have and the more secure I feel that I'm protecting my staff.

“There are so many things to take into consideration. I'm seeing people saying 'great, we'll be back open in three weeks time', but I don't think it's going to be that simple.”

However, David Headley, who runs Goldsboro Books, said shops should be allowed to open sooner than 1st June if they can do so safely. He said: “We are fortunate that we have three doors and we can use our space effectively and safely. Though, I think that as soon as we are allowed to reopen to the public, we will open by appointment only for a period of time and until we feel that it is safe to open more freely.

“I feel that bookshops should be allowed to open sooner than the 1st June if they can provide a safe environment with social distancing. Wine merchants, fast food and grocery stores are open and I think books are as important in these difficult times. I’ve seen e-books sales figures today and people are reading more digitally but there are people who want physical books.”