Bookshops begin a fresh chapter

BOOKSHOP business has been booming as desperate readers have flocked back to browse the shelves for the first time in three months.

But times are still tough for small independent booksellers across the Chilterns as they fight to bounce back from weeks of lockdown.

Almost four million books were sold in the first six days after bookshops reopened in England on June 15 – a jump of over 30% on the same week last year.

But in one survey more than a third of regular customers said they still felt unsure about returning to bricks-and-mortar premises now lockdown has eased.

Booksellers were forced to shut up shop on March 23 in response to the coronavirus pandemic and were unable to reopen for 12 weeks.

During that period, they were only able to offer online or click-and-collect services – and while the amount of time people spent reading books almost doubled during lockdown, much of that custom was picked up by online retailing giant Amazon.

The good news for retailers was that 3.8m print books worth £33m were sold in England in the week to June 20, the best performance for that week of the year since the release of Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix back in 2003.

Independent bookshops have been thriving in recent years, with numbers growing for three years on the trot to almost 900 in 2019, including local newcomers like Books On The Hill in St Albans.

The Booksellers Association’s managing director Meryl Halls described the increase as “heartening” and predicted bookshops would roar back once the coronavirus pandemic had passed.

Speaker in a live Twitter chat hosted by The Bookseller, she said: “Book lovers will return from this crisis hungry for human connection, desperate for conversation, stimulation, inspiration. Booksellers will be there, arms open.”

Antonia Mason, who runs Books On The Hill with her mum, Clare Barrow, said: “We as a team have been overwhelmed with our community’s kind words and support over the last few months. It’s been incredible, especially considering we had only been open a few months prior to lockdown.”

Although many bookshops were able to respond quickly to the shutdown, some had a weak online presence and were unable to compete with the service provided by Amazon – with the crisis undermining the advantage of small local businesses being able to provide personal contact, relaxed browsing and advice.

Worries about maintaining rental payments, coping with supply chain problems and having to furlough staff added to the pressures but Meryl Halls added: “I am unutterably proud of booksellers at the moment—they are weathering a historic battering and we will do all we can to keep the sector intact.”

Asked what the first week back in business would look like, she responded: “We will return from this with a new appreciation for each other, for human endeavour, for writing, for community. There will be lots of hugging. Lots of tears. Some wine. Many parties.”

Back in April on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Waterstones managing director James Daunt echoed Halls’ assertion about the importance of books and bookshops.

He said: “Books are important, they help people isolate, they help mental wellbeing and we are in fact experiencing huge numbers of sales, particularly of children’s books and educational books.”

Prior to lockdown, bookshops had been enjoying a growth in trade spurred on by a thriving “shop local” movement and environmental considerations, helping them to weather the Amazon “firestorm” – the astonishing success of the trillion-dollar company able to promise overnight delivery and customer reading recommendations at the touch of a mouse. 

Since June 15 bookshops around the country have shared their delight that “lovely customers” have come “racing back”, but have been forced to cope with reduced opening hours, social distancing challenges and in some cases the need to continue delivering to customers who are shielding or reluctant to venture out.

Booksellers have also had to introduced a range of safety measures for customers, including hand sanitiser stations, plastic screens and one-way systems. Footfall predictably remains lower than before the pandemic, with few able to boast outside seating areas like The Book House in Thame.

Nonetheless Meryl Halls believes consumers are understanding that high streets are more than just shops and transactions, with savvy shoppers also anxious to reduce waste and shop more ethically. 

“Food miles, gratuitous expenditure, waste, re-use and recycling are all aspects of the decision of how and where to shop,” she said. “It has to be better for many reasons to go to your local high street and pick up goods that have been transported en masse to shops, than to have individual parcels thundering up and down the country in huge trucks from online companies.”

Retailers continue to face stiff online competition and unequal business rates, but shop owners have spoken of receiving wonderful comments from customers. One children’s bookshop owner said: “The conversations about books are joyous and experiencing the excitement from children in our space will never get old.”

Booksellers say books bought by customers in store have been more varied than those purchased online, where the chains’ lockdown charts were topped by Sally Rooney’s Normal People, thanks in part to a timely 12-part BBC dramatisation.

Thrillers, rom-coms and crime novels proved popular, with less appetite for dystopian fiction. Some wanted to be absorbed, others favoured escapist reading, but booksellers expressed delight at the appetite for personal recommendations, boosting sales of books which might not pop up on algorithms, including those from local authors.

Although Covid-19 dealt a heavy blow to publishers, it has also witnessed a frenzy of innovation, with the industry sharing Zoom invites to “visual author events”, podcasts and virtual festivals and some pundits predicting the end of lockdown unleashing a new wave of “interesting and exciting” writing – some perhaps based on people establishing a new relationship with the natural world during their three months of lockdown, not to mention their revised expectations of what kind of “new normal” will emerge on transport and in the workplace.

Settle down for a good read

THE GOOD news these days is the sheer number of nature books weighing down the shelves in your local bookshop.

The bad news is the confusion of choice when faced with so many different titles and too little time in the week to read them all.

Luckily there has also been an explosion in the number of good local independent bookshops providing a welcoming place to browse and some expert advice about the best titles to choose. But just in case you haven’t got too many local nature lovers able to advise you, what are some of the most interesting reads fighting for your attention this year?

Given our excitment about Raynor Winn’s prize-winning writing debut The Salt Path, we are naturally looking forward to the September launch of her follow-up narrative about returning to normal life after the period of homelessness which inspired her first book.

The incredible journey she and terminally ill husband Moth made along the South West Coast Path in the wake of the collapse of their livelihoods was as thought-provoking as it was life-affirming, but what happened when their odyssey came to an end?

Or if you need something to get your teeth into before then, what about Lindsay McCrae’s lavishly illustrated memoir of life with an emperor penguin colony, which came out in November.

The award-winning wildlife cameraman spent the best part of a year in Antarctica chronicling the lives of 11,000 emperor penguins and this is the story of their existence in one of the planet’s harshest environments – or as fellow wildlife filmmaker Gordon Buchanan described it on Twitter, “an incredible chap in an extraordinary place”.

Anyone interested in slightly less extreme conditions can find out more about how weather actually works and what the future may hold for us in climate terms in an intriguing analysis from meteorologists Simon King and Clare Nasir.

From how rainbows are formed to whether we could harness the power of lightning, the pair break down our knowledge of the elements to explain the significance of weather in history and explore the science behind a subject that affects us all.

Or if you feel overwhelmed by all the doom-laden talk of climate change, find out what happens when 3,500 acres of land which has been farmed for centuries is left to return to the wild.

Isabella Tree and husband Charlie Burrell were facing bankruptcy working their farm in West Sussex when they decided to try something radical and restore the Knepp Castle Estate to the wild, using herds of free-roaming animals.

Flash forward a few years and the estate has become a breeding hotspot for rare and threatened species where the fabled English nightingale sings again. Despite local and government resistance, here is a story of optimism and hope against a backdrop of looming environmental disaster.

For younger readers who would enjoy and a funny and informative introduction to the natural world, Ben Hoare’s infectious enthusiasm is accompanied by elegant photography and lush illustrations from Angela Rizza and Daniel Long.

Hoare introduces some extraordinary plant life, not to mention the odd tarantula, rattlesnake or wombat.

One book last summer which quickly won plaudits from a number of celebrity fans was Joe Harkness’s groundbreaking testimony to the transformative power of birdwatching.

Described as “life-saving” by Chris Packham and “wonderful” by Bill Bailey, the book chronicles the author’s efforts to recover from a breakdown, and his discovery of how birdwatching could help his sense of wellbeing and self-acceptance.

A slightly different type of natural escape was that chosen by Mark Boyle, whose efforts to live off grid and escape from the pressures of modern technology form the basis for The Way Home.

With no running water, car, electricity or internet, this is about discovering the pleasure of an elemental life governed by the sun and the seasons: building a home with your bare hands, learning to make fire, collecting water from the stream, foraging and fishing to survive.

Nature’s healing powers are explored in more depth in another 2019 book, this time exploring the science behind why being in nature makes us feel alive and helps us thrive.

Why on earth do we spend countless hours indoors in front of screens when being in nature feels so good? This book explores how nurturing our emotional connection with nature can impact on our physical, intellectual and spiritual lives too.

Meanwhile Douglas W. Tallamy’s new book explores practical steps we can all consider to help avert the decline in wildlife populations.

Tallamy’s solution is to encourage a grassroots approach to conservation where home owners everywhere turn their backyards into conservation corridors to provide practical and effective wildlife habitats.

As well as sidestepping the whims of government policy, this encourages neighbours and heighbourhoods to work together to start preserving precious wildlife for future generations.

Of course there are still plenty of other classics to catch up on if you haven’t read them yet, including Robert Macfarlane’s exploration of the world beneath our feet in Underland.

From the burial grounds of the Mendip Hills to the catacombs of Paris and the ancient ice of Greenland, Macfarlane explores the netherworld in a mingling of myth, memoir lyrical travelogue.