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The UK book trade has got off to the worst possible start in 2021 with a national lockdown that has put non-essential retail into economic paralysis. More than 1,000 bookshops are now closed across England, Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales, including all 280-odd stores in the Waterstone chain, and some 890 independents.
The only physical outlets still selling books – and a limited range at that – are those WH Smith stores that carry books and non-traditional outlets like garden centres that have small book departments.
The UK Booksellers Association (BA) has called on the government to provide more support for independent bookshops. BA MD Meryl Halls said the ability of shops to still offer click and collect, alongside online operations, would be vital as many tried to fill a “gaping hole” in their finances left by the pandemic.
She said: “Booksellers understand entirely the challenges to public health represented by Covid, and have a keenly-felt duty of care for their staff and their customers – as well as themselves – so they are supportive of all measures to curb the spread of the new variant of coronavirus. However, the economic impact on retail and livelihoods of another extended lockdown could be severe and the BA, on behalf of its members, urges the government to continue all the support for retailers previously available.”
Online is still happening, of course, but these sales are not enough to make up for lost physical sales. As Waterstone MD James Daunt put it: “In the circumstance of a lockdown in which people should not be leaving their home other than to ‘go to an essential retailer’, and we are deemed not to be essential, click and collect becomes something that simply doesn’t work.
“Fortunately the furlough scheme [under which the government pays 80% of wages] is there and that is hugely important to keep people employed, otherwise we along with all other businesses that were forced to close would have had to engage in terrible redundancy programmes so the government at least is protecting jobs in that respect.
“[But] effectively we’re closed. Waterstones of course is lucky enough to have a big and successful online operation and Waterstones.com will keep sales flowing but we are at heart a physical bookseller and we want to get back into our shops so it’s intensely frustrating.”
Daunt has also questioned the logic of WH Smith and other non-traditional retailers remaining open while traditional booksellers have to close. “[It is a curiosity that] so many shops are open and deemed essential, including W H Smith in our own sector, and many other people who sell books. So we sit here and we obviously support the principles of what the government is trying to achieve while clearly falling into the losers as far as the overall impact goes from a financial perspective.”
But Halls added more positively: “Bookshops have reinvented themselves throughout lockdowns and will do so again. The ability to continue click and collect in most areas is a welcome extra opportunity to keep selling books, and many bookshops have developed fully functional websites of their own, as well as partnering with third parties such as Bookshop.org, to create a high quality online offer. This will only become more important as lockdowns extend.
“We urge booksellers to take care of themselves and their staff, and we know that booksellers are set up to run their click and collect operations responsibly and safely. This period is traditionally the quietest part of a bookseller’s year so there is some comfort in that, but there is a gaping hole in the 2020 numbers for many bookshops, and they need to be able to keep trading to recoup those losses.”