Bookselling Ireland calls for Taoiseach to make bookshops 'essential'

Bookselling Ireland calls for Taoiseach to make bookshops 'essential'

Bookselling Ireland has today (1st April) written to the Taoiseach to ask that bookshops be classed as "essential" retail and allowed to open, or be granted special dispensation to offer click and collect services.

The group, which is run by Irish booksellers and backed by the BA, has compiled the letter as France has joined Italy and other European countries in allowing bookshops to remain open during lockdown.

In Scotland, which has followed a similar approach to Ireland regarding lockdown, bookshops were one of the first retail businesses permitted to operate a pre-booked click and collect service.

The letter details the benefits of reading and the "vital" service bookshops offer, including providing a service that improves mental health, providing educational material for students who will sit their Leaving Certificate exams in June, and supporting Ireland’s literary culture by showcasing books by Irish authors. 

The missive also highlights the perceived inconsistencies within the current definitions of essential retail, underlining the commercial disadvantage faced by bookshops, with essential retailers that sell books being allowed to remain open, while bookshops are closed.

Commenting on the letter, Heidi Murphy, chair of Bookselling Ireland and buying manager at W H Smith, said: “Bookshops are so much more than a place to buy books – they are cultural hubs that play a unique role in supporting Irish writers, bringing life to our towns and giving readers windows into different worlds when we need it the most. Bookshops have been designated as ‘essential’ in many other European countries and, if we want to continue our great literary tradition, Ireland must surely follow suit.”

Ireland has been locked down under Level 5 restrictions, which includes a ban on all household visits, the closure of "non-essential" retail, a 5 km limit on travel, and restrictions on the numbers of people allowed to attend weddings and funerals. The Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, is due to review the measures, but has confirmed Click and Collect will be delayed until May at least.  

Shared with The Bookseller, the letter in full reads: 

Dear Taoiseach,

We are getting in touch as booksellers and officers of Bookselling Ireland. As a trade association we represent bookshops across Ireland from large chains to small independents accounting for over 200 branches. Together our members directly employee over 4,000 people, support many more jobs in the supply chain, and contribute hugely to our local communities.

It will likely come as no surprise that we will begin by expressing our extreme disappointment at the decision taken on Tuesday evening to maintain the status quo regarding click and collect in retail. The incredibly strict level of lockdown that has been in place since the start of the year has had a huge impact on the bookselling industry, and particularly on independent bookshops. We are now reaching a stage where it is no exaggeration to say the survival of the bookselling sector in Ireland is very much at risk. The loss of these shops would be devastating, not only for the individuals involved but for their communities up and down the country.

One particular group suffering from the prolonged closure of bookshops are the students who will sit their Leaving Certificate exams in June. As you’ll know, a vital part of the exam preparation process for many students involves using mock test papers and study materials found in specialist bookshops. This is not something we are easily able to provide to students who are currently only able to access these materials from bookshops by mail/online order. This method comes with additional postage costs and longer waits. Students can however buy a limited amount of these materials from newsagents and supermarkets. We are now in the absurd position that many shops deemed essential that have never sold books before have expanded their product offering to exploit this gap in the market. Meanwhile booksellers with expertise in this area are unable to assist students and the schools we’ve spent many years working alongside.

The Government has also acknowledged the important role that reading plays in supporting the mental health of the nation, most notably through your Ireland Reads campaign. For many people reading has brought great comfort during the pandemic and at the moment Irish bookshops have not been able to support our communities by providing them with books. Instead we have a situation where many businesses deemed essential have been selling books with impunity due to inconsistencies in the application and policing of the current rules. You must appreciate how frustrating it has been for booksellers to hear politicians acknowledge in one breath the link between reading and mental well-being during the pandemic, then in another tell booksellers we can’t allow people to collect books from our shops. This situation cannot be allowed to continue.

In light of the above it is now vital that bookshops are either granted the status of “essential” retailers or that special dispensation is granted to allow bookshops to offer click and collect services. We fully understand that the Government is taking a cautious approach to the easement of lockdown in light of the public health risk, but the decision to allow bookshops to remain open in some capacity is not without precedent.

In mainland Europe, France has recently joined Italy and others in allowing bookshops to open during lockdown due to the important service we offer. In fact, it seems Ireland is out of step with most of the EU on this matter. We have also seen a similar decision in Scotland which has taken a similarly cautious approach to Ireland regarding lockdown. Bookshops there were one of the few retail businesses permitted to operate click and collect services on a booked collection basis within their local council areas which has proved to be a lifeline for the shops and their customers.

The bookselling industry is vital, not only in providing a service that improves people’s mental health during difficult times and providing educational material for children, but also in supporting the proud literary culture in Ireland by showcasing books by Irish publishers and introducing new authors to the wider public. We appreciate that many parts of the retail sector are struggling at the moment. However, none match bookshops when it comes to supporting community engagement, mental wellbeing and cultural significance. As a trade association we are committed to working with our members to help them operate in a way that is COVID-safe and poses the lowest possible risk to customers.

We would be happy to arrange a call with you or someone in your office to discuss these issues in more detail and share with you more information about the positive contribution bookshops make to our communities.