Overseas readers may be unaware that England is currently going through its second lockdown, meaning that only businesses that are deemed essential are allowed to remain open to the public. While certain stores such as supermarkets and WH Smith, which sell a variety of goods, including books, have been classified as essential, bookshops have not. In response, the Booksellers Association has asked the UK government to catagorise bookshops as essential.
Earlier this week, the BA’s managing director Meryl Halls sent a letter to government officials which described bookshops as “lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope,” and stated that closing bookshops while allowing other retailers who also sell books to remain open was “potentially ruinous commercially and is also morally problematic”.
“Our members are prevented from opening, yet see garden centres and food shops selling books, when bookshops are quite clearly the best places to sell books to consumers at this crucial time of year,” writes Halls. “Their livelihoods and those of their staff are already in jeopardy from the first lockdown, and their chances of survival into 2021 would be much improved by having a solid Christmas sales period.”
As The Guardian reports, chief executive of Waterstones, James Daunt agreed, saying: “It’s not really very helpful when we all go bust and the big guys are going to be OK. It’s ridiculous, and it’s a tragedy.”
The rest of the UK is still open, but England will remain in lockdown until at least 2 December. Wales has just emerged from a lockdown, Scotland is using a five-tier system, and Northern Ireland is currently in a five-week partial lockdown.
Both Halls and Daunt have pointed out that, in other countries, bookshops have been regarded as essential. In France, bookshops are not considered essential but, to give them a chance, supermarkets are not allowed to sell books. The idea that bookshops deserve to be seen as essential has been supported by a number of high profile authors, including Salman Rushdie, Ali Smith, Philip Pullman, and Simon Schama, who signed a different letter asking prime minister Boris Johnson top allow bookshops and libraries to remain open “if they so wish” during this second lockdown.
“We … should not, as a country, allow bookshops to go out of business; we have some of the world’s best,” read the letter, which pointed out the large increase in sales and library borrowing during the COVID-19 pandemic as proof of the “importance to the mental health and happiness of the nation” that books provide.
Halls’ letter noted that bookshops are “entirely behind” the effort to suppress the spread of COVID-19, and that “massive investment” has been invested into making sure stores Covid-compliant. “Responsible retailers have ensured that staff and consumer safety is at the top of their priority list,” Hills wrote. “We know that there is no demonstrable evidence for retail locations being the locus of infections.”
“For this lockdown, as we go into dark winter nights, products and activities such as books and reading are a vital way of keeping the nation’s spirits up while they’re locked in their homes. Our bookshops are lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope. We urge you to consider classifying them as essential retailers.”
Daunt, who elected to close Waterstones branches earlier this year when some of the chain’s booksellers said they felt unsafe, said the company has made great efforts to make shops safe. “Closing us while most of our neighbours are open still, including in many of our locations, literally next door to a WH Smith selling identical products to us but because they label themselves as newsagents they’re open, it’s absolutely absurd.”
Daunt added that categorising bookshops as essential is “slightly more subtle than saying, ‘I think that people will die if they don’t read a book’. They will if you don’t feed them, so it’s not essential in that respect. But it’s completely ridiculous and counter to all of the evidence to close us.”