Lockdown eases: independent bookshops on their reopening plans
As non-essential businesses reopen, indie bookshops explain their plans for customer safety – and why some stores aren’t opening just yet
Bookshops in England may reopen today (15 June), in line with the easing of lockdown rules to enable ‘non-essential’ businesses to resume trading on high streets. Some indies are reopening right away, some are delaying until next month, and some are still unsure about when they will be able to reopen safely. Here various indies discuss their plans, and highlight the books that have been particularly popular over the last few weeks.
Sarah Dennis, who owns Mostly Books in Abingdon, is reopening the store tomorrow (16 June), and is taking a stepped approach: from June 16-20, the store is open from 10am-3pm for customers to collect pre-ordered books, and with a browsing station where customers can request to look at books in stock. During Independent Bookshop Week (22-27 June) there will be 20-minute browsing slots from 3-4pm, with a full day of the slots from 10am-4pm along with goodie bags for children, competitions and special offers. The store is ensuring that it will remain safe by placing tills next to the door, adding sneeze guards, and allowing only two customers in the shop at any one time. Customers will be required to sanitise their hands when entering the shop, and gloves will be provided for those who want them. Mostly Books has been offering free deliveries within a five-mile radius, and is reducing the frequency to Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays. The store will maintain its recently opened online shop.
Dennis notes that sales over the last few weeks have been ‘sporadic’, with some busy days and some quieter. A bank holiday sale and online events generated enthusiastic responses. Big sellers have included Me and White Supremacy by Layla F Saad, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, and Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams.
Natalia de la Ossa, manager of the London Review Bookshop, is planning to reopen the store to the public on 6 July, so long as the store installations meet health and safety guidelines. She notes that sales have been ‘totally crazy’ lately, and have steadily increased over lockdown. The latest bestsellers include Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Your Silence Will Not Protect You by Audre Lorde, and Afropean: Notes from Black Europe by Johny Pitts, which recently won the Jhalak Prize. De la Ossa is enthusiastic about the reopening, adding: “We have all been waiting for this moment – to see each other again – and to see our customers.”
Five Leaves Bookshop in Nottingham has long been known for its dedication to diversity and radical politics. Owner Ross Bradshaw said: “We’ve always had a Black Studies/Black History section, and our children’s books have an orientation to diversity, so we are committed to this area. In the last two weeks we have struggled to cope with the number of orders for books on racism, not just Reni Eddo-Lodge’s book or Layla Saad – fortunately we had quite a few of the latter from a recent book event with her – but also parents asking us for boxes of books to help make their children’s bookshelf more diverse.”
Since lockdown began, Five Leaves’ mail order system has been so successful and popular that it has been ‘difficult to cope with’ – another worker is now off furlough to assist Bradshaw in sending out orders. The shop has sent out 2,000-3,000 books, with about 1,000 through Gardners and the rest from its stock. Although the most popular titles are all about race, Bradshaw observes that poetry is also extremely popular, alongside fiction – Where The Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens has been a consistently high seller. He adds: “We’ve also picked up quite a few customers who’ve decided that this was the time to ‘go independent’.”
The store is not reopening until July 1. Bradshaw said: “We think that the government is wrong to move so quickly to non-essential shops opening. While the rate of infection is falling, on one day recently more people in Britain died than in the whole of the 27 countries in the EU. We think it is safer for staff and customers to wait a bit longer. We’ll continue to supply books post free as we know many people might be unwilling to travel into the city and we want to support those of our customers who will want to continue to buy books by mail. By the time we re-open we’ll also be able to give people the alternative of our stock all being online.”
Gay’s The Word in London is reopening on July 1. Manager Jim MacSweeney, who praises the Booksellers Association’s guide to reopening, says that the shop is ‘really conscious’ of the safety of customers and staff and has invested in a perspex screen for the till and hand sanitiser for customers to use when they enter. The store will limit the number of people who can enter at one time, and putting tape on the floor to promote awareness of social distancing. Hours will be reduced, and the store will be closed one day a week so shelves can be restocked and orders can be made. MacSweeney says that although there is a lot to think about, “much of it is common sense”, and Gay’s the Word’s team of three people has had several meetings to discuss how to create and implement best practice.
The store has been completely shut during lockdown, so that staff did not have to use public transport to get into work, and directed customers wishing to order books to other LGBT bookshops such as Category Is Books in Glasgow and Portal Bookshop in York. MacSweeney is looking forward to being back: “I have really missed being at the bookshop. It’s a great space to work and our customers are lovely.”
Ken Thatcher of Foyle Books in Londonderry reopened the shop on Friday, after running a successful internet business during lockdown; He says: “We have sold several rather expensive items which to be honest I would have rather sold through the shop, but I suspect that that’s the nature of the bookseller as opposed to the person who just happens to sell books.” The store’s online shop has also been popular with people who have visited in the past as tourists and are happy to use its online service through lockdown.
Because of the layout of Foyle Books, it will be possible to have a one-way flow, and the shop has also acquired hand sanitiser. Thatcher adds: “I have no idea what we will do if customers want to actually handle books, imagine doing such a thing in a bookshop!! We seldom would have more than three, maybe four in the shop at any time, so distancing should not prove to be a problem. We also have a number of clients who simply come in for a chat, I don’t know how that will work. I don’t quite know what to anticipate but would be delighted to hire ‘security’ to supervise a long queue of customers. In my dreams I think! All in all I feel rather buoyant about the whole business and hope to trade for at least another 40 years (we opened in 1980), which would see me through to the age of 90, when I might contemplate retirement.” In a further message, he adds: “In my response I got my arithmetic wrong. I intend to retire aged 110, not 90. I expect to take a more advisory role for the final two years.”
Elaine Nelson, owner of Sam Read Bookseller in Grasmere (pictured top), has had an eventful lockdown: she intended to spend a week in France with her husband, but the trip turned into a 10-week stay when flights home were cancelled. The pair eventually decided to take a two-day road trip home. In her absence, bookseller Will Smith has been ‘doing an amazing job’ running the shop online, from a standing start. The online business has been thriving, with customers ordering via the online shop, email, or phone, helped by advertising on social media.
Popular titles have included Looking for Eliza by Leaf Arbuthnot, Writing Wild: Women Poets, Ramblers and Mavericks Who Shape How We See the Natural World by Kathryn Aalto, Diary of a Young Naturalist by Dara McAnulty, and Wanderland by Jini Reddy. During the Black Lives Matter movement there have also been high sales of Queenie by Candice Carty-Williams, Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People about Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, No Win Race by Derek A Bardowell, and Brit(ish): On Race, Identity and Belonging by Afua Hirsch. The store has also received a number of pre-orders for James Rebanks’ second book, English Pastoral, released in September, and All or Nothing at All: The Life of Billy Bland by Steve Chilton, released in August.
Nelson is reluctant to reopen Sam Read Bookseller at the moment, with ‘R’ numbers still high in the North West, but nevertheless is at work on how to make the store as safe as possible to the public. She is considering opening in a ‘more limited way’ to balance the physical and online businesses, and will keep a close eye on how other businesses cope in the coming weeks.
The Chepstow Bookshop developed an online store at the beginning of lockdown, and owner Matt Taylor reports that online sales are growing 30% each month as the store reminds customers it’s still there through its email newsletter, social media, and signs in the shop window. The shop’s entire stock is now on its site, which is synced with the store so customers can reserve books or have them sent. However, the ‘vast majority’ of the shop’s sales are via phone, so the store can provide its usual personal touch. The Chepstow Bookshop has also launched a ‘click and collect’ service, so customers can buy online or on the phone and collect their books from outside the shop between 9 and 11am; customers can also order gifts to send to friends and family round the country, and the store offers a giftwrapping service along with a card and message.
The Boy, the Mole, the Fox and the Horse has been the shop’s biggest seller, partly thanks to some signed bookplates; the store is keen to work with publishers for further similar promotions. Sally Rooney’s Normal People has also been popular following the TV series.
Taylor is taking the closure as an opportunity to repair the front of the building. Being in Wales, it does not yet have a reopening date, but is already prepared with signage from the Booksellers Association along with screens at the tills, hand sanitiser, and plans to conduct a full risk audit. Taylor says: “We’ll be watching the opening in England closely, and recently took part in a Facebook live from Melbourne on their experiences. I’m ready to open as soon as we are told we can. I’d say I’m very excited about reopening, sad that I won’t be running any physical author events this autumn, and generally concerned that there might well be a second wave later in the year.”
Pigeon Books in Southsea is opening today – as it was shop-sharing before, it is an official opening rather than a reopening. Owner Mel Davies describes herself as ‘excited but nervous’, and aims to combine safety with a ‘lovely bookshop experience’. The store plans to have social distancing in place by restricting the number of customers allowed to enter, along with providing hand sanitiser and gloves. During lockdown, Pigeon Books has been successful with its online sales, and has found that during the Black Lives Matter movement Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge and How to Be an Anti-Racist by Ibram X Kendi have been ‘quite the hot commodity’. Girl, Woman, Other by Bernardine Evaristo, Hamnet by Maggie O’Farrell and The Dutch House by Ann Patchett have also seen high sales, and All the Ways To Be Smart by Davina Bell is the store’s top-selling children’s book.
Natasha Radford at Chicken and Frog Bookshop in Essex is also reopening today. As the store also provides tutoring sessions, Radford plans to hold these in the morning, with the shop open during afternoons only until the end of the summer term. During International Bookshop Week, Emma Carroll and John Kirk are joining the store for online events, and the shop is also working with indie publisher Guppy Books, along with the Not Now Bernard campaign with Andersen Press.
Chicken and Frog has been delivering to addresses across the world, sending books to Germany and Canada just this week. Radford adds: “Black Lives Matter has certainly had an impact, with parents and teachers asking for guidance on titles, from very young to teen. They have also been looking for books on empathy generally, which can only be a good thing.”
Bookshops reopen today
“Non-essential” shops including bookshops reopen in England today. The openings include some 230 branches of Waterstones and five branches of Blackwell’s.
Waterstones said: “As we reopen our doors to customers, the ability to trade safely is paramount for us and we will do so cautiously, making sure that extensive health and safety measures are fully implemented in our shops.” The widely publicised measures include screens at tills and notices advising customers to return books they have browsed to trolleys for quarantining.
The reopened Blackwell’s branches are in Oxford, Holborn, Manchester, Newcastle and Cambridge, also with “full safety measures” in place.
Zool Verjee, Blackwell’s head of marketing and publicity, said: “This is obviously uncharted territory, but we anticipate that many customers will be delighted to be able to browse in physical bookshops once again and we aim to make their shopping experience as safe and easy as we possibly can. Plenty of fabulous books continued to be published during lockdown and are in our shops waiting to be discovered, and we greatly look forward to welcoming customers so that they can return to the joy of browsing books in bookshops. And for those who are unable to visit, then Blackwells.co.uk is there for them and all their bookish requirements.”
Independent bookshops have various responses to the easing of lockdown restrictions, as a selection of them reveal to BookBrunch today. Some are reopening fully, some partially, while others do not believe that at the moment they can provide safe environments for their customers.
Meryl Halls, md of the Booksellers Association, said: “The UK is home to all manner of bookshops, and as lockdown gradually lifts each individual bookshop will have its own approach to best serving its local community while keeping staff and customers safe. There is, of course, a sense of caution among booksellers as they work to adapt to Government guidelines and reopen their businesses in a completely new trading landscape. But there is optimism too. Booksellers across the country have shown incredible resourcefulness and creativity in lockdown, and we don’t doubt that this will continue to be the case as we enter this new phase. The BA will of course be behind our members all the way.”
End of the road for A Street Cat Named Bob
Hodder & Stoughton and author James Bowen are ‘saddened to announce the death of Bob the cat on 15 June at the age of at least 14 years.’
The story began when Bowen, a recovering addict, first met Bob in 2007 when he found him abandoned and injured. According to Hodder: ‘James took care of Bob who in turn gave him a reason to get up each morning. They quickly became inseparable, busking and selling The Big Issue on the streets of London.
‘In 2012 Hodder & Stoughton published James’ first book, A Street Cat Named Bob, telling his and Bob’s extraordinary story. The book was a publishing sensation, selling – along with its sequels The World According to Bob, A Gift from Bob and The Little Book of Bob – more than eight million books in more than forty languages, and was made into the film in 2016 starring Luke Treadaway as James. Bob appeared in the film as himself and will appear in a sequel, A Gift from Bob, later this year.
‘As James and Bob continued to find fans all over the world, Bob led an incredible life meeting well-wishers at book signings, travelling the world and coping with feline fame. He was an extraordinary cat who will be greatly missed.’
Bowen said: “Bob saved my life. It’s as simple as that. He gave me so much more than companionship. With him at my side, I found a direction and purpose that I’d been missing. The success we achieved together through our books and films was miraculous. He’s met thousands of people, touched millions of lives. There’s never been a cat like him. And never will again. I feel like the light has gone out in my life. I will never forget him.”
Clock stops for Bertrams as it goes into administration
The drawn-out saga of the potential sale of the business, announced earlier in the spring, has come to an unhappy conclusion this afternoon with the news that the business has gone into administration. A statement on behalf of administrators TBA was received by BookBrunch a few minutes ago.
“We can confirm that Bertram Trading Limited, the global book wholesaler, has entered administration along with Education Umbrella Limited, a supplier of textbooks and digital education resources and Dawson Books Limited, an academic and professional library supplier. Book wholesalers have suffered from falling demand in recent years due to changes in the distribution model for literature and the rising popularity of e-books. These factors, combined with the Covid-19 related closure of many public libraries and educational facilities, meant these businesses could no longer operate viably.
“Sales have been agreed in principle with two unconnected parties for the tangible assets and unencumbered stock of Bertram Trading Limited and for the intangible assets of Education Umbrella Limited and it is hoped that these will be completed shortly.
“Unfortunately, the majority of employees have been made redundant with immediate effect with a small number retained to manage the winding down of operations. We are liaising with all employees impacted regarding their statutory rights and to direct them to support from the relevant government agencies.”
There is no word yet on how much money will be repaid to creditors. Publishers are believed to be owed considerable sums, but they will come behind the taxman and staff in the queue.
The wholesaler was advertised for sale by its parent company, equity group Aurelius, in mid-May, with Middleton Barton Asset Valuation handling the disposal. It was described as ‘a leading B2B Books wholesaler’ with a 185,000 sq ft leasehold warehouse, 200,000 titles in stock and an annual turnover of £250m.
In late May the Bertline online sales system was bought out of the business by the BA. The ordering system, which is used by around 300 indies, will be merged into the BA’s Batch operation. Before the Bertline deal the Sunday Times had 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.”
At the beginning of May Elliott Advisors, owner of Waterstones and Barnes & Noble, bought Wordery, Bertrams’ online bookselling division. Wordery will be a separate business from Waterstones.
In March 2009 Bertram was rescued in a deal with Smiths News, which paid £9m for the business and agreed to settle publishers debts of £16m, after Bertrams was dragged down by the collapse of parent company Woolworths in the autumn of 2008. At that stage the wholesaler’s turnover was about the £125m mark. In 1999, Kip Bertram sold the company he and his late mother, Elsie, had founded for between £35m and £40m, so the deal represented something of a bargain.
In 2014 Smiths News was renamed Connect Group plc, with Bertram, Dawson Books and Wordery comprising the Connect Books division. In January 2018 the division was sold to Aurelius Equity Opportunities for a total cash consideration of up to £11.6m, and was renamed the Bertram Group.
At the time Aurelius was described as ‘a pan-European asset manager with offices in Munich, London, Stockholm, and Madrid’. Its website stated that over the previous 10 years it had grown from a local turnaround investor “to an international multi-asset manager investing in a wide range of sectors and across the capital structure”.
The sale followed a difficult year for the group, which saw its shares fall from 159p in January 2017 to 90p in October. Connect Books recorded a £2m loss before tax, including £3.2m of exceptional charges, in the year to 31 August 2017.
At the time of the sale the BA’s Tim Godfray welcomed the news: “Aurelius seem to be a good fit. They have very considerable resources at their disposal and from their track record, show themselves to be a good, stable, long term investor.”
The prospect the trade now faces is life with just a single remaining national wholesaler, Gardners, for the foreseeable future.