Innovative indies find online silver lining as coronavirus closes stores

Innovative indies find online silver lining as coronavirus closes stores

Indie bookshops are focusing on online sales and coming up with innovative ideas for business after the coronavirus crisis forced physical stores to close.

Boris Johnson's announcement on Monday night that only stores selling essential goods should stay open saw W H Smith and The Works become the last major chains to announce closures on Tuesday. However, many indies had already decided to shut up shop and look for new ways of selling books.

Norwich's Book Hive shut on Monday and is now focused on sending out books with free postage to customers. The store is driving business from its website with “isolation packs” of handpicked books and funny Instagram videos, including an extraordinary Mother's Day performance that was its most popular yet. Bookseller Joe Hedinger said: “we're doing postage while we still can and while the orders are still coming in. They're coming in over the phone, by email, on Instagram, everywhere. People have been really supportive.”

Hedinger has even set up a virtual bookshop using the Houseparty app where customers can chat to him and, eventually, each other, creating a sense of community. “Generally speaking we're just trying to keep the energy up and keep our spirits up," he said. "We're just trying to keep everybody smiling as much as we can.”

He added: "As it stands we want to keep going as long as we can without having to draw on [government] resources and with the support we've had so far it means we can operate, not normally by any means and with the free postage not finacially normally either, but we're here, we're afloat and we're operating.”

Kate Claughan closed her Halifax Book Corner store on Friday and the Hebden Bridge Book Case shop—which has already had to survive flooding this year—on Saturday. She said: “We'd already decided that we weren't comfortable continuing to open. We were having trouble separating elderly customers from children and I was getting more and more uncomfortable with out staff being there.”

A plan for home deliveries in Hebden Bridge was ditched because of uncertainty over how long it would be allowed for and she is now focused on a new online shop for the Halifax store, with orders from the other shop going there too. Staff saw a spike in orders early on from people preparing to stay home although the initial flurry has died down a little.

Both shops are eligible for the government's £10,000 small business grant but the Halifax store just misses out on business rate relief. Claughan has furloughed her staff, who will have 80% of their wages paid for by the government, which she will make up to 100% for the next three months. However, with her employees mainly on zero hours contracts, she wanted clarity on how much they would be paid. She said: “Everyone needs to know they've got family to feed and mortgages to pay. It's hard to be an employer and not be in a position to tell them all the details.”

BrOOK's in Pinner has also quickly built a website, moving its business completely online some 48 hours before Johnson's statement. Co-owner Peter Brook said he had spent a lot of time speaking to accountants and renegotiating with the landlords to say “you need to share some of the pain”. “To some extent I've never been busier but it's about making sure we're going to be fit enough to reopen as soon as we can,” he said.

Like Claughan, Brook is also waiting on the government for clarity on the financial position of the nine casual workers he employs, though he has already vowed that none will lose their jobs and has taken out an interest free loan from the bank. “I'll use that money to pay them and worry about the debt when we get there,” he explained. “As a bookseller your people are the most important thing.”

The shop is also raising money to send books to three local schools where children of key workers are being taught. Brook said business had been going well, despite the loss from having to close its cafe and licensed operation. He said: “We're maintaining nothing like our normal sales but today we'll do the same amount of revenue in book sales on Tuesday as we did on an average Tuesday in February.”

Lesley Hodgson only opened the Blue Bear Bookshop in Farnham late last year but agreed loyal customers had provided “extraordinary support” online. She said: “There is now no 'normal' so these customers seem to be happy to move their support online and are ordering books from us to be delivered directly to their doors. We can send books anywhere in the UK, and we have been taking orders from all over the world from people wanting to send care packages to loved ones in other locations, or birthday gifts to those they can't see in person.”

Hodgson has also been recommending books to parents for children home from school, has sent out bundles of revision guides and has plans for online book circles, author events and writing groups. But she warned: “We don't know how long the supply chain will survive: our online sales depend entirely on the books being available to us and the delivery services being able to take the books to customers. But most importantly we need the public to remember that every single book they buy from an independent bookshop makes a massive difference, so we beg everyone to please not forget about us as the weeks go by.”

Up in Edinburgh, Lighthouse Bookshop reduced hours from 16th March, with most of its booksellers working from home to plan digital content ready for the inevitable closure. Manager Jim Taylor said: “That week allowed us to add extra stock to the online store on our website, which we are still keeping very focused on our own bookseller's picks. But we're also offering to order any book customers want (availability dependent) via email or Twitter, Instagram and Facebook DM. These sales are our only revenue as of this week, so are absolutely keeping us afloat. Gardners and Bertrams home delivery services are a total godsend right now.”

Lighthouse has also launched Life Raft, a virtual bookshop with author readings, book recommendations and more to keep the radical store's atmosphere afloat.

Taylor said: “The measures announced by the government thus far are indeed of use to us, particularly the easing of rates, support for wages—we're committed to keep paying our staff their full wage for as long as possible—and the business interruption loans. However, in order to ensure that most indie bookshops are going to be able to re-open their doors in – hopefully—a few months' time, these measures must extend until at least the end of the summer, and what's more must be bolstered by an even greater commitment to welfare spending that exceeds the existing universal credit system. Not many books are going to be sold, after all, if only a small number of people can afford to buy them come autumn.”

The Booksellers Association this week advised indies to fulfil online orders where possible and make use of third-party fulfilment options from firms like Gardners. Its m.d. Meryl Halls praised stores for their “fleetness of foot and creativity” but echoed calls for clarity from government.

She said: “while the regulations from the government on social distancing and lockdown are entirely appropriate, many of our members are incredibly frustrated—like other business owners all over the country—with the lack of clarity and detail on some of the key issues. Details on paying furloughed staff and directors, on the specific detail of payments to staff, on guidance on lay-offs and on the detail of online regulation are causing distress and confusion, and we call on the government to clarify all regulation as soon as possible.

 “The BA is supporting members through this unprecedentedly difficult time and we have been incredibly heartened by the support of publishers, suppliers, wholesalers, authors and others. Commercial terms are being offered to help the indies through this firestorm, financial packages are being put together to help booksellers in distress, and the whole trade is pulling together. We are incredibly heartened too to see the collegiate and collaborative partnerships between booksellers—a small silver lining in some dark days for us all. The network and mutual support of booksellers has been awe-inspiring to behold.”