Indie booksellers 'hanging in there' as lockdown stretches towards April

Indie booksellers 'hanging in there' as lockdown stretches towards April

Indie booksellers remain generally optimistic they can “weather the storm” of the latest lockdowns, despite fears England's shop closures could last until April.

Press reports have suggested that non-essential stores could reopen in April, meaning bookshops are facing around three months of lockdown. However, most indies contacted by The Bookseller this week said factors like government grants, bookshop.org, home deliveries and loyal customers should help see them through.

Asher Woolford and Laura Iveson only launched their West Yorkshire shop Darling Reads in July 2020 and have spent the entirety of the store's existence coping with the pandemic's effects.

They said: “We've certainly seen a dramatic downturn in sales this lockdown compared to before Christmas, which we feel was inevitable. We have noticed that we have a core group of customers who are eager to see us through and place regular orders for click and collect but engaging new customers is becoming increasingly difficult as lockdown fatigue takes hold.

"Bookshop.org has been an important tool for us revenue-wise and we are grateful for it. Additionally we are optimistic that World Book Day will allow us to build some momentum throughout March. There are certainly things on the horizon that we remain optimistic about, we just need to weather this storm first.”

Jo Coldwell, bookseller at Red Lion Books in Colchester, said the team was using the time to overhaul the shop's website, and that January was proving "typical".

"Morale is surprisingly high," she said. "Lockdown is never great but after a very busy Christmas, it feels OK to shut the doors and recharge. Christmas was up from last year, a mixture of customers panic buying but also wanting to shop and support local and/or indie shops.  It was great and we gained new customers during this period."

"It’s frustrating because so many great books are coming in but we are using our newsletter and social media to shout about them and relying on our clever customers to read the reviews and to get in touch. The perfect customer during lockdown is an informed and loyal one. We are fortunate to have that — January and February will be absolutely as expected. By March we will be fine if we maintain the custom we have. I think another month closed will be tough for booksellers but this is where furlough and grants have helped," she added.

Darling Reads was named Newcomer of the Year by National Book Tokens last month, an award it took alongside Maldon Books in Essex, which opened in December 2019. Maldon's owner, Olivia Rosenthall, said the support her store received last year from the local community was “phenomenal” and she was optimistic about the coming months, despite having been in lockdown since before Christmas when Essex entered Tier 4.

She said: “I think we will be all right. We’ve quite drastically reduced our collection hours for now because even over Christmas and the beginning of January our area was quite bad for local cases [of Covid] so I think that’s been quite a hard decision for bookshops to make over whether to stay open five to seven days a week for collections or whether you’re going to close and reduce your hours. It’s been a tough call but we’re now only open on Fridays and Saturdays for collections with a view to increasing those hours as things go on. We really didn’t want to be asking people to come out when it’s been so bad and we really wanted to keep our customers as safe as we can.

“We’ve really tried to promote the home delivery side of things so that people can get their books online. We’re still open technically seven days a week for contacting: I now have my phone diverting. It’s not anyone’s ideal way of trading but it’s all we can do really for now until things get better.”

Indie publisher Little Toller also opened a bookshop late last year in in the Dorset town of Beaminster. Jon Woolcott said: “Obviously, being closed for most of the time since we opened in November is hardly ideal, although we understand the reasons. But if we are to be closed, it’s better in these quieter months.

“We’re offering a click and collect service for certain times in the week, and our customers are keen to support us, especially as a new venture. We’re a publisher too, of course, and we're using our working time to plan, edit and design our books for the rest of 2021, while juggling home life and, for most of the team, home-schooling too.”

Some booksellers said government grants had provided a lifeline but were worried about what the next few months hold.

At the Stripey Badger in Grassington, North Yorkshire, owners James Firth and Linda Furniss said they were most concerned about the physical condition of their store and the books inside.

They said: “In a village with absolutely no footfall, no passers-by to look in our window, not only lockdown but a huge infection rate of Covid-19 is keeping residents at home, and we are obviously very concerned. Not being open means that in a 400-year-old property, we are fighting to keep it warm and dry — heavy rainfall means leaks — and books in tip-top condition. With the adjoining cafe closed as well, there is no warm air circulating. It's a worry."

Kate Claughan, owner of The Book Case in Hebden Bridge, West Yorkshire, said the shop was “hanging in there” adding: “We didn't open for click and collect in January as we were concerned about the spread of the new variant [of Covid-19]. We have been relying on bookshop.org and using the time closed to have a move round in the shop although we are behind on that due to floods and snow! We are now deciding what to do going forward if lockdown continues past mid-February.”

Ross Bradshaw at Nottingham's Five Leaves Bookshop said morale among was staff was “OK” despite working with the expectation of being closed until April. He said: “One of our staff realised that one morale booster was to keep the shop as if it could open in 10 minutes, so he changes the face-outs on the general shelves when he is in, and updates the display tables with new titles so we all check to see what's new. We produce a Book of the Day on Twitter most days as we have for some time.

"Our webshop has worked really well, though we are curious to know why, during lockdown, Sunday afternoon and evening is the busiest time for ordering. Of course sales are down, mail order can't replace buying-by-browsing, but it's not a disaster by any means.

“The trickiest problem is knowing what books to buy in — we don't want to write off or miss out the books published during lockdown but there are lots of books we stock that people have not heard of and will only sell by browsing. We are working on the basis of lockdown until April though.”

Dinah Anderson of Bookshrop Booksellers in Whitchurch, Shropshire, said government support grants had covered her fixed costs and she was hopeful for a surge in customers once lockdown does ease.

She said: “After each lockdown customers came flooding back, and December was a massive 26% up on 2019. I was so relieved not to have to shut that last week before Christmas, as others had to. That would have been a game-changer, for sure.  

“Moreover, I suppose, small towns like us are mainly full of independent shops and that is our attraction to day trippers, whereas larger towns who have lost their Debenhams and Arcadia brands may suffer from diminished footfall for some time. It looks like a 'staycation' summer again, which places towns like us at an advantage as we have major canals nearby. I see new businesses taking over empty units planning to open in the spring too.

“In addition, Bookshop.org arrived late last year, giving us a real chance to fight back against Amazon. It is another string to our bow, another safety net of support in the event of customers lacking the confidence to come back to the high street for a while.”

However, she warned: “I have spent this lockdown really pondering the future of the business, standing back in a way I don't normally have time to do and planning for another year. I'm out of lease now, which takes the pressure off in the event of another pandemic, God forbid. However, if I were to take on another lease, I'd certainly try to build in a break clause in the event of another deadly virus, on the basis that we can't insure ourselves against it.”