Bookshops will roar back once Covid-19 has passed, says BA's Meryl Halls

Bookshops will roar back once Covid-19 has passed, says BA's Meryl Halls

Bookshops will roar back once the coronavirus pandemic has passed, the Bookseller Association managing director has said in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller.

Meryl Halls said that despite the enforced closures of high street stores, she was certain that customers would want to return to shops once the lockdown was lifted.

"Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open," she said in The Bookseller's inaugural, weekly Twitter conversation.

Responding to industry queries in the wake of Covid-19, Halls called out the "supply chain gaps" and the "need for indies to be [better] online," while acknowledging the "big risks" involved in making key decisions.

Interviewed by The Bookseller's editor Philip Jones, she advised bookshops "to max out all the grants they can access. Check with local authorities for what's coming. Harangue landlords for rent relief. Take all the help you can get. Furlough your staff, take government support. And protect your staff/selves."

Citing immediate concerns including cashflow and outgoings, she urged the government to "realise that the job retention scheme will need work; freelancers and self employed are vulnerable. Rent relief will need urgent attention."

Halls praised the stoicism of those working in the industry, commenting: "I am unutterably proud of booksellers at the moment—they are weathering a historic battering and we will do all we can to keep the sector intact."

She admitted that the crisis played "to [the] strengths of Amazon; removes the advantages bookshops had, and were building. But book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open."

Asked what the first week back in business would look like, she replied: "we will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties. More hugging. A billion books sold. Bookshop doors thrown open, authors spilling onto the pavement. Laughter."

Meanwhile interviewed on this morning's (Wednesday 1st April)  BBC Radio 4 "Today" programme, Waterstones m.d. James Daunt echoed Halls' assertion that the industry needs to keep talking about "the importance of bookshops and booksellers," and keeping staff safe.

He said: "books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge [numbers] of sales, particularly of children's books and educational books, so that seems not unimportant.

"A lot of retailers can say they're essential, I think we can say so with much more credibility than most."

The chief executive of Waterstones and Barnes and Noble recently closed all outlets, following government advice, but is still running a "small online operation."

"Our challenge is to run our warehouse safely, with [social] distancing absolutely in place [...] we've spread out through[out] the warehouse, and split the staff into separate shifts so they don't come into contact, we're able to operate it really quite safely."

On Twitter, Halls said the BA had initially called for bookshops to be an essential service, but decided not to push it: "We asked for this right at the start—they did it in Belgium—but soon realised that many booksellers were uncomfortable being open, felt a duty of care to staff etc—so we didn't push. But I think it could be a key plank for the aftermath-bookshops are essential."