Waterstones has said Covid-19 closures means a charitable donation to Black Lives Matter is not currently possible despite a petition set up by booksellers calling for the chain to financially support the cause.
The high street bookseller's chief operating oficer Kate Skipper said the firm was “committed to delivering considered and meaningful change” but it was not yet in a position to make a donation, though that would be reviewed.
She responded after employees published an online petition and open letter to managing director James Daunt, saying the chain had an all-time record breaking day for online sales and traffic last week, with the top nine bestsellers all either written by black authors or about race.
“We are so excited that these important and fundamental books are flying off our shelves and finding needed and necessary homes,” their letter states. “However, we don’t think it is enough to just sell these books and tweet our support for the Black Lives Matter movement anymore. We feel it is essential that we also pledge our support to the BLM movement with action, financial aid and resources.”
The letter calls for the “massive revenues” BLM has generated for Waterstones to be distributed to funds including Black Visions Collective, Emergency Release Fund, The Bail Project and BLMUK. It also called for action “beyond a post” on social media with “ongoing allyship” such as offering black authors residencies and scholarships.
The letter states: “We believe it is time for Waterstones to stand up beyond an Instagram post or a tweet and provide substantive support for the Black community who are fundamental to our bookstores.”
In a message online, the organisers said they were white booksellers, paid below the National Living Wage, but still wanted to support the movement. By Monday afternoon, the petition had surpassed 5,000 signatures and was half way towards its target.
Their letter said: “We understand it is a difficult time during the unprecedented closure due to Covid-19, yet we must also be aware that this is a historic moment in the fight against racial injustices being perpetrated against the black community; here in the UK and across the world.”
In response, Skipper thanked staff for their suggestions and said the firm was committed to delivering positive change and need to ensure diversity existed in its books and employees. She said: “I realise further immediate actions would be welcome at this point but we are committed to delivering considered and meaningful change which will take longer than a retweet.”
Skipper added: “One of the common queries and one in which our current circumstances force our hand, has been a request to donate our profits to charity from the sale of books about race, racism and BLM. This is an excellent idea, being true to our values and one very much part of our recent history. We gave £1m to Oxfam towards its work with Syrian refugees and have raised other substantial donations through other campaigns.
“Now, however, all our shops have been closed since March 23rd and the great majority of our employees are on furlough. The pressure on the business is unprecedented and extreme. With the best will in the world, we are not in a position to make a charitable donation at present, however much we would like to do so.
“We will reopen many of our shops on 15th June and hope the business returns to normal relatively quickly. Once it has done so, we can review our ability to support charitable initiatives and are exploring ways to make this possible.”
Daunt told The Bookseller this week that most Waterstones stores would reopen from 15th June but business was likely to start out at around 60% of its normal level.
“For us and most independents the end of the March, April and May sales are gone, and that's a huge financial hit,” he said. “It'll also take a while to get back to normal so there will be a further loss through the following months."
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