Week 22/20 – week ending 29 May

Independent bookshops prepare to reopen for 15 June

Following Sunday’s announcement that non-essential retail businesses can open their doors again from 15 June, independent bookshops are starting to work out how exactly that can be done. Because of the layouts of a lot of indie bookstores, social distancing may be difficult for them – and many have been running highly successful businesses since lockdown began with online and phone orders, book clubs, and Zoom author events.

Some bookshops are planning to open their doors again from 15 June – Five Leaves in Nottingham, for example, is looking forward to welcoming customers back. Meanwhile Pigeon Books in Southsea is planning to open in ‘some capacity’, but is still working out logistics, including a possible ‘click and collect’ open rather than having the bookshop open for browsing. Julie Nolte at The Book Nook in Hove said: “In preparation we are deep cleaning and painting the shop to enable us to have the shop open and customers and staff to feel safe. Over the next weekend Steven Lenton and Sophy Henn are painting our windows, which we are very excited about. They will be displaying their new forthcoming books Octopus Shocktopus by Peter Bently and illustrated by Steven Lenton and Pizazz by Sophy Henn.We look forward to seeing the faces again of all of our wonderful customers.”

West End Lane Books in West Hampstead is planning to open but is still planning what exactly that opening might entail. Meanwhile, Chicken and Frog in Brentwood (pictured) is planning to reopen with adjusted opening times – owner Natasha Radford is still doing home deliveries for people who are isolating, alongside teaching in the mornings – the bookshop also runs a highly successful tuition business.

Other stores, however, are not so sure. Kate McCloskey, owner of Dogberry & Finch in Okehampton, said “I will re-open Dogberry & Finch Books only when I feel it is safe for my customers and my family to do so”, and is offering a postal home delivery service in the meantime. The London Review Bookshop is ‘rigorously planning’ its reopening but will probably not be ready by 15 June. Because of its central London location, manager Natalia de la Ossa worries about the staff getting to and from work safely.

Finally, there are a number of bookshops that are erring on the side of caution: Eleanor Lowenthal at Pages of Hackney said “We aren’t planning to open on the 15 June, as we are too small and we feel browsing safely is impossible since books will be handled and not bought,” and added that the success of its online service means it can continue. Sam Read Books in Grasmere also isn’t opening its doors just yet and is instead continuing to operate via mail-order and online, while considering its options about when and how the public can be safely allowed inside to browse.

BA managing director Meryl Halls said: “Booksellers will understandably each take their own view on when they want to safely re-open their doors, and the BA is ready and able to help members whenever they decide to do so, with our re-opening kit, our resource and our third party advice lines. It’s important for all booksellers to feel confident that they can calmly make their own decision about re-opening, depending on their business context and personal situation.”

In a further development, the BA has issued a plea to the publishing industry, emphasising that ‘the journey to bookshops operating at full capacity will be a long and complicated one, with distinct challenges along the way.’

The plea for support took the form of a publisher letter following the results of the BA’s Open for Business Survey earlier this month, which revealed the obstacles facing bookselling during the crisis, with just over three quarters of BA members currently operating in some reduced capacity and the remainder closed for all business, with those partially trading doing so at an average of 20 percent of their usual turnover.

The survey also noted the realities of re-opening bookshops in light of likely restrictions; two thirds of BA members surveyed said that they expect to partially reopen when they can, with just under half of these looking to initially operate with greatly reduced staff and fewer days open per week. Seventy per cent of those planning to re-open in some capacity also confirmed that they would be expecting to have reduced opening hours per day.

According to the BA: ‘The findings demonstrate the competing challenges facing booksellers as they juggle operating online and attempting to re-open in line with changing guidance and consumer expectations. These challenges are further compounded by issues around high street rent negotiations, bringing back furloughed staff, buying new stock, and restoring customer confidence in returning to bookshops. These obstacles are on top of a retail landscape where online retail giants have benefited from a customer base concerned about returning to the high street.

‘To tackle these challenges and assist booksellers in reopening their businesses, the BA is calling on the publishing industry, including publishers, distributors, suppliers and more, to commit to working closely with booksellers.’ Potential solutions recommended by the BA include:-

– Extending returns windows and a flexible approach to returns
– Offering free shipping for bookshop orders
– Grace periods on payment of invoices
– Extended credit terms and increased discounts on frontlist orders
– Sympathy and forgiveness for delivery-related inconsistencies and mistakes
– Consideration of redeployment of reps as a conduit between publishing houses and booksellers
– Provision of information on best practise and processes for booksellers from distributors
– Creative approaches to shared markdowns on old stock, to avoid returns gluts
– Actively prioritising high street retailers in online book promotion by linking to retailers such as Waterstones, Blackwell’s, Foyles, WH Smith, local indies, Hive, or the BA’s Bookshop Search tool, rather than defaulting to Amazon
– Harnessing author power in the promotion of high street bookshops in their online activities
– Commitment to bookshop campaigns and promotions, including this year’s online Independent Bookshop Week and October’s Bookshop Day celebration

Halls said: “COVID-19 represents the biggest existential crisis bookselling has ever faced, and while we are of course grateful for the immediate support the publishing community has provided to high street bookshops, there is more that needs to be done going forward if bookshops are to return to trading successfully. Booksellers have shown incredible resilience and creativity in continuing operations during lockdown, however without significant support and understanding from the wider industry, bookselling may well face an uncertain future, which can only damage the trade as a whole.

‘While the realities of a post-COVID world remain uncertain, by working together and recognising the importance of a varied and diverse retail landscape, the book industry can ensure that it is a world in which both publishing and bookselling can thrive.”

BA takes over Bertrams’ Bertline

The news was announced by the BA overnight. ‘With Bertrams currently up for sale, and over 250 independent bookshops facing uncertainty as to the future of the stock control system, the BA Group’s technology arm, Batch, will take over the running of Bertline to provide consistency to BA members.

‘The transition will complete at the end of June, with both Bertrams and the BA Group working closely together to ensure a smooth handover period. The BA Group will be communicating directly with those of its members who use the system about the development to keep them up to date.’

BA md Meryl Halls (pictured) said: “The BA Group has focussed all its energy since the start of the COVID crisis on putting in place mechanisms to maintain maximum stability for high street bookselling as it strives to return to full strength after the enormous body shocks of the virus and its ongoing impacts. The purchase of Bertline by the BA Group is in line with this motivation – to preserve stability for the independent sector, to secure a crucial supply chain tool for over 250 independent booksellers, and to minimise disruption to the supply chain, and to the effectiveness of high street bookshops reliant on the Bertline system.

“We intend to continue business as usual for our bookseller members, and we are delighted at the swift and responsive reaction of Bertrams’ ceo, Raj Patel, to our approach to step in to secure the system for the future. We look forward very much to working on the smooth transition with the Bertrams team and hope that our indie members who are Bertline users see a clearer future, and one less anxiety as they enter the re-opening phase of the crisis.”

Andy Rossiter, BA president, said: “As a long-time user of Bertrams and the Bertline system, I am both proud and delighted that I am BA President at the point where the BA Group – albeit in vexed circumstances – has been able to step in and secure the future for the Bertline system at a time when its loss would have been another body blow to independent bookselling. I have used Bertline for the entire period I have run my three shops with my wife, Victoria, and have been engaged and active in its development as a user.

“Securing this essential ordering and stock control tool is a huge vote of confidence in the indie bookselling sector by the BA Group, and I can think of no better home for it than with the Batch suite of services. Batch has proven itself an invaluable tool for bookshops of all sizes for many years, and as the technology arm of the BA, is uniquely well-placed to continue the provision of the service to BA members.”

Fraser Tanner, managing director at Batch, said: “I am delighted to announce that Batch has managed to secure Bertline for the book trade. As a key part of the supply chain and embedded in the operations of so many BA member, we could not stand by as the uncertainty of Bertline’s future was unfolding, adding as it did to the difficult situation that booksellers were already facing. Raj Patel of Bertrams was keen to work with us so we can provide a continuity of service at what is a uniquely challenging time.

“There will be a period of transition as we move to support everyone on the system, so we will ask you to bear with us over the next few months. I wholeheartedly believe that Batch’s innovative technology can bring benefits in many areas, and my team and I will to do our very best to help the many wonderful publishers and booksellers across the country as they continue to serve their customers.”

Raj Patel, ceo at Bertrams, said: “I am really grateful to the Booksellers Association in taking charge of a much-loved system developed in tandem with the independent bookshops over the years. Bertline has been the system of choice for hundreds of bookshops across the country. I know Bertline is in good hands and will be further developed by Batch and representatives of our book industry.”

Batch will be contacting members in the coming weeks with more details, with members able to contact the mail@batch.co.uk support email in the interim.

BA-designed Batch is a web-based electronic payments and information system that provides bookshops free EDI feeds for integration into stock control systems and accounts packages, such as QuickBooks and Xero. Batch Returns simplifies the returns process and helps to reduce waste in the supply chain; all its services are free to booksellers and the system is used around the world in over 80 countries.

Bertrams, which has a reported turnover of £250m, was put up for sale by parent company Aurelius earlier this month. Previously, The Sunday Times reported that the company would appoint an administrator, which Bertrams denied on twitter. “We are not in administration…there is no change to the operations disclosed at the beginning of April which are in a furloughed state for the foreseeable future.”