Waterstones and Blackwell’s are hoping to reopen some of their stores from 1 June, but it seems highly unlikely that either chain will be able to open all their stores. It may be easier for Waterstones to open its suburban stores, or its stores in small towns, because the staff are less reliant on public transport in their locations. But its stores in city centres require staff to use public transport and at the moment many staff do not feel safe on crowded trains.
Waterstones is working hard to make its stores as safe as possible. A spokesperson said: “We will [reopen] cautiously, with extensive measures in place to ensure the safety of both our booksellers and our customers. The actions we take include investment in equipment, from sneeze guards to sanitiser stations; in the procurement of PPP [personal protective equipment] for our booksellers; and in the instruction and signage to support social distancing. We learn from the experience of our European bookselling colleagues—notably in Italy and Germany—who have reopened their shops ahead of us in the UK.”
Blackwell’s CEO David Prescott is hoping for a staggered reopening programme, beginning with the chain’s flagship stores in Oxford and Edinburgh and university-based campus branches.
In responses to a survey in the Bookseller magazine, one Waterstone staffer said: “Social distancing will not be possible in a lot of different bookshops for a lot of different reasons. Some are too small, some are too busy and some customers will just ignore every entreaty to protect themselves and staff members.”
Faber CEO Stephen Page has spoken of the importance of physical bookshops and said that the closure of shops had severely impacted print sales in the UK, with the industry as a whole experiencing a drop of between 60% and 70%.
“The interesting thing about publishing is that we have developed a rich ecology around online shops, bricks and mortar shops and print and digital. People may be surprised to know that digital listening and online reading make up quite substantially less than half the business”.
He believes bookshops should be among the first retailers to “responsibly” re-open. He said: “Art and culture is central to our understanding of what is going on right now.”