During the last year the book industry and the bookselling sector have suffered and struggled for survival as many other economic and cultural sectors. But this crisis showed how resilient the book industry is. And how much local bookshops are important to readers and communities.
There are many actors in the book industries: authors, translators and editors, literary agents and publishers, distributors, bookshops and libraries, organizers of literature festivals and book fairs. The effect of the pandemic crisis has been different on the different categories of actors and probably some of them (authors and translators, organizers of literary and commercial events) were more deeply affected than the others. Being a bookseller, I will focus my brief writing on bookshops.
One year ago the first lockdown came like a sudden storm hitting everywhere. Bookshops and libraries shut down, supply chain and logistics became totally unreliable, book fairs were cancelled one after the other, traveling was almost impossible and social and cultural life was at stake.
But people’s need of reading wasn’t. They wanted books. They looked for books on bookshops’ websites, they contacted local bookshops by calling or via email… Bookshops were physically closed to the public but most of them tried to keep the bookselling activities, relying on their local stock of books and by delivering at home. Then the bookshops could open again (in Brussels it was in May), more people went into the bookshops and moreover, each customer tended to buy more than usual, three-four books instead of one or two. Apart from the period of stricter lockdowns, we can say that during this pandemic, local bookselling platforms and bookshops have performed well in terms of sales, and in certain months even better in comparison to previous years. If you consider the whole picture, more resources than before, both human and financial, both public and private, were needed to get those results. And a number of businesses in the book industry didn’t and won’t survive. We know that crises are turning points because uncertainty and instability provoke changes that can be either fatal or source new opportunities.
Which are some key factors that can make a difference for an independent local bookshop?
I would say it should constantly develop: its singularity and specificity (because the bookseller’s algorithm can beat the leviathan’s ones); its online bookshop (because more potential readers and customers can appreciate and access its unique catalogue); environmental-friendly and personal home delivery; the relationship and engagement with readers (building a mutual exchange); the sense of being locally rooted (people are more conscious about supporting local businesses).
I would like to quote Jorge Carrion Covid-19 and bookshops: “In these times when millions of us are under house arrest and missing our bookshops, millions of isolated, masked readers – though communicating via whatsup, working on skype, and devouring stories on netflix and HBO – have found ideas, escapism, and above all consolation, in our excess of books, bookshops need to react vigorously. They need to re-appropriate the culture of the book. Become conscious of their prestige and power. Ensure their brand and story are valued. What’s at stake is their future, which, to a considerable extent, is our future, too.” (Jorge Carrion, Against Amazon and Other Essays, Biblioasis, 2020)
I strongly believe too that bookshops are essential social and cultural harbours and lighthouses for the local communities of readers and, especially in times of pandemic, a place of sanity.
Beyond the excellent Carrion’s essays on bookshops and libraries, I would suggest also to read:
- Vincent Puente, Le Corps des libraires : Histoire de quelques librairies remarquables & autres choses, Editions La Bibliothèque, 2015.
- Browse. The World in Bookshops. Edited by H. Hitchings, Pushkin Press, 2016.