Booksellers Association managing director Meryl Halls has heralded “remarkable” Christmas trading for the sector as she thanked the trade for its “invaluable” support this year.
Halls' comments came in her annual letter to the trade after a turbulent year which has seen her members' shops closed for months and hit with a wave of ever-changing restrictions owing to Covid-19.
Nevertheless, she said it had been “a remarkable Christmas trading period for high street bookshops and for the trade generally – notwithstanding the shocking and dispiriting news on Saturday about Tier 4 retail lockdowns in London, the south-east and Wales, with more to come in other parts of the UK – and with the New Year as yet uncharted territory for the high street.”
She wrote: “Whatever the final outcome of this unsettling year for booksellers, the post-lockdown surges in bookshop sales, in the light of the torrid year we have just endured, is truly remarkable, and does reinforce what we suspected all along, which is that books are a resilient product, bookselling and publishing are esourceful and resilient sectors and reading is an activity for the age.”
Halls said there had been “unexpected positives” this year too, including more time talking publishers, agents, authors, retailers and the library sector, thanking them for offering “wise counsel and friendship”.
She added: “I’m also thankful to BA members, who are the most incredible cohort. I don’t say this glibly. We know that bookselling is a low-margin business, and know too that those who enter it are driven by passion and commitment. Forging a livelihood from bookselling is a hard path, albeit an intensely rewarding one. They are articulate, opinionated, clever, funny, empathetic, intelligent, resourceful, resilient, ferociously hard working and kind. They run – or work in – retail spaces that represent something much bigger than the sum of their parts and I think the whole industry has gained a new appreciation for what bookshops and booksellers deliver to our ecosystem. We see our membership numbers the highest they have been since 2014 – a counter-intuitive outcome of Covid, as the benefits of collegiality have become crystal clear – and we know just how much booksellers do to help each other, as well as to sell books and provide community resources.”
Halls said that she had undergone the most intense period of trade networking, along with BA president Andy Rossiter and executive chair Nic Bottomley, to stabilise the landscape for high street bookselling and obtain commitment from the trade “to secure and reassure the bookselling sector as it reeled during the first lockdown”.
She said: “Your support at that time – and since– has been invaluable, and we have, as a trade, managed to navigate to a very much better position than we faced in March. I would like to thank you personally, and all of your teams, who have worked with the BA and with our members to create a more solid foundation for bookselling.”
Halls also spoke of the BA's “bold steps”, including rebating membership subscriptions to all indies, extending credit terms for its own products and services and providing a full bookshop reopening kit and funds for Covid-safe equipment for bookshops. It also bought Bertline from Bertrams and its team at Batch is developing “a 21st-Century solution that booksellers need for their electronic point-of-sale systems, inventory management, website and online activity”. The association also facilitated the arrival of Bookshop.org late this year.
Turning to Brexit, she said: “I have spoken to many of you about the challenges faced by our Irish booksellers and the support our Irish colleagues will need in the coming weeks as the real-life impacts of the UK’s decision to exit the EU – surely the last thing any of us can bear to contemplate at this point – begin to play out. But plan we must, and I appreciate the work of so many of you in publishing and distribution who have helped us navigate this particular minefield.”
Halls concluded: “On balance, I think we go into 2021 on slightly surer footing – if nothing else, we know how the mechanics of a lockdown need to work – but clearly bookselling is right at the heart of one of the most vexed and jeopardised sectors in our economy, retail. The high streets of the UK and the main streets of Ireland rely on consumer spending, a level playing field between online and high streets, on affordable rates, on local authority infrastructure and on a fair and negotiable rent situation – not to mention a government willing to tackle the might of the online giants, a functioning supply chain, a publishing community producing high-quality products, and a world without a pandemic. All of these issues will require our recurring attention next year, as we return to our previous priorities and work towards a climate where booksellers can get back to what they do best – selling books.”
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