Independent publishers are reinvigorating book subscriptions and launching new services, amid disruption to normal distribution.
Gardner's announced its temporary closure in light of the Covid-19 pandemic one week ago, but a few days later it confirmed it was reinstating its home delivery service, working within the government's guidelines, with just 80 staff, down from its usual 800, still in place. Bookselling website Hive, which is run by Gardners, has also re-opened, though customers are restricted to ordering one item at a time to "maintain a safe working environment for staff".
The wholesaler Bertrams remains closed, alongside smaller outfits including Bookspeed and Central Books.
"The warehouse closures were a blow, but we still do most of our shop orders through the publishers, so we pivoted to really focus on what we have in the shop," said Jim Taylor, manager of Edinburgh's Lighthouse Bookshop.
"We've now added 'lucky dip' options to the website so people can order by category and we have the freedom to choose from what is on the shelves. We're also pushing the pay-it-forward [book donation] scheme and have had substantial donations through that, which we are pairing with requests from people who don't have the cash for orders."
Other retailers The Bookseller contacted said they had prepared for the worst following the outbreak of coronavirus, anticipating that disruption would follow. The Book Hive in Norwich got its last order of books from Bertrams on Thursday (2nd April.) Bookseller Joe Hedinger said the shop could keep going on its current stock “for as long as [it] need[s] to”.
He said: “On the one hand it seems quite alarming that we can't get anything else in. But we already anticipated this would happen so that's why we did things early on like reading packs where we pick stuff for the customers.”
Already organising “isolation packs” and lucky dip selections, the staff are advertising, via their Instagram videos, larger boxes of up to 50 books for customers.
“The reputation of our shop having a really well curated, well thought-out selection of books we've built over the past 10 years means people have gone for it. We've been as busy as we ever have been this week, so long may it continue,” Hedinger added. He said they had several thousand titles in the shop and “no rubbish", so there was no selection shortage.
The management at Lighthouse plan to start highlighting other sections of the shop to customers, such as cookery titles and graphic novels.
Retailers are also increasing exposure to their existing stock digitally, to combat the disruption to delivery services. Rosamund de la Hey, author and proprietor of Mainstreet Trading Company in St Boswells in the Scottish Borders said: "It's a lot more complicated [now] because the supply chain is very different to what we've been working with.
"Our main strategy has been to improve our website offer, so we're really focusing on our current favourites, and we've been bulk buying those from publishers, with our self-isolation book subscription in mind too."
The company, which encompasses a bookshop, cafe and delicatessen, is also expanding its range of services, including non-book items, and launched an Easter care package last week. "You might have Maggie O'Farrell with a beautiful bar of chocolate, or a paperback with a really delicious bar of soap, that kind of thing," said de la Hey. "People have already been asking me to tailor-make them, which is lovely. We're trying to upscale that, and [increase] volume."
Nic Bottomley, co-owner of Mr B's Emporium of Reading Delights in Bath, said the shop had been "relying on Gardners for their home delivery, so once they took that out, our message to customers had to [change.]
"For us it's great that Gardners have made that adjustment, and they're now able to offer a form of [delivery] again. We're very busy.
"It would be lovely if they are able to sustain this in a way that is safe for their teams, and gives independent bookshops a way to ship orders to customers responsibly."
In a similar move to Mainstreet Trading Company and Lighthouse, Mr B's has updated a new service, initially launched at the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic.
"We came up with a new product called 'send us a prize read for when we've all been freed', which is selling pretty well. Now that we are regularly shipping books, we have repackaged that entirely with a new name... the idea still being to send somebody a book to put a smile on their face," Bottomley commented.
Despite the disruption, shop owners have cited their commitment to authors "no matter what". Emma Corfield-Walters, proprietor of Book-ish in Crickhowell in South Wales, said she had requested "lists of books still being published this month" from her reps, because "it's really important to support those authors — if we can get their books in then we will."
Jonny Geller, chairman of Curtis Brown and c.e.o. of Original Talent, told The Bookseller last month that flexibility regarding the publication dates of significant titles would alleviate some of the disruption.
“I presume some major titles will move to summer to allow for book tours and footfall in bookshops to resume... I think everyone—printers, retailers, publishers and agents—will be affected by this crisis. Demand will fall and supply will be hesitant as caution hits the market. This is temporary. We will, doubtless, learn new patterns of reading and selling books, but this is a disruption," he said.
Corfield-Walters agreed that the uncertainty was a cause for concern and praised Gardners' actions. "Nigel [Wyman] at Gardners has been great — it's not as if Gardners is a big faceless corporation, they've been so supportive. We are a part of such a wonderful community," she said.
Despite the community spirit and innovative measures independent retailers have implemented, an air of uncertainty still persists alongside the ongoing pandemic.
"I had a really stressful and tearful day [last] Monday, it's been such an emotional rollercoaster," said Corfield-Walters. "I am doing my best to soldier on and I am not going to quit. It's a case of seeing how long our [strategies] go on for, but don't ask me now — I don't know what's happening by the end of today, never mind tomorrow."
Nic Bottomley added: "It's the to and fro... we've reinvented the way we do things five times in the past 17 days, it's that constant process. The world changes every five minutes."