A Retail Reality Check: Our Bookstores and What’s ‘Essential’

In Feature Articles by Porter Anderson

Under the pressure of the coronavirus, the publishing industry joins others in looking for the way forward—in a world in which what’s truly essential simply may not include physical bookselling for a time.

A shot from March 10 in London. Image – iStockphoto: Gem Photography

By Porter Anderson, Editor-in-Chief | @Porter_Anderson

Editorial: The Coronavirus COVID-19 Is Nonfiction
As the worldwide coronavirus emergency deepens into life-and-death gravity for so many in the world, a situation in the United Kingdom has reflected a concern that may play out in many other world markets for books.

At this writing The New York Times‘ tallies show Earth to have more than 341,500 people sickened by the virus and at least 15,187 dead with COVID-19. The Johns Hopkins Resource Center database, for comparison, shows 351,731 cases and 15,374 deaths. Sadly, by the time you read this, those numbers will have made more of their relentless jumps: more illness, more loss of life, more risk and exhaustion for medical and other responders; more economic devastation; more fear and confusion.

And while the people of publishing are right in understanding that the genius of literature has much to offer a world in such radical peril, we all—including those of us who cover the business as journalists—can do well to remember that no book is worth a human life and no blessing of publishing is worth endangering its people. Romantic notions of books’ importance are no match for life and health.

On the other hand, we can be sure that no one who had a hand in the outcry that came to a head this weekend in the UK got up one morning determined to make some questionable decisions about employee and consumer safety. We all need to put aside any kneejerk tendency to look for blame so that we can confirm what’s important: protecting people from the dangers of the contagion.

Certainly, for the most part, companies in communication with Publishing Perspectives have worked with real commitment to make the best decisions for their employees’ safety—and for their customer-readers’ needs.

The issue in Britain, however, now seemingly resolved, is well worth our attention. Publishing everywhere is having to adjust, along with the rest of society and business, to a fortunately rare and lethal context. And there are times when this industry’s allegiance to many traditions and rich experience may, in fact, not always inform it well.

Today in the UK, Public Health England at this writing announces 5,683 UK cases and 281 deaths. The sharpest ascent of the incidence begins at March 9.

And the concern in this case led to Sunday’s (March 22) late-day announcements by the UK’s Waterstones and Blackwell’s. Both bookstore chains announced that they are closing their physical points of sale temporarily amid the coronavirus crisis.

  • At Waterstones’ site, for example, you now find a 5 p.m. Sunday announcement reading, “To help prevent spread of the Coronavirus, and to protect the wellbeing of our customers and staff, sadly Waterstones will temporarily close its doors by the close of trade Monday 23 March until further notice.” One advantage for the books business is that physical shopping, while prized by many, is not actually necessary. And Waterstones has wisely included some notes on in-country delivery timings of shipments, as well as such comments in international deliveries, as well. Very smart.
  • The Blackwell’s site seems not to have such a thorough explanatory message, but if you look at its list of shops, the opening hours of each is listed as “closed.”

The closure of these bookstore chains’ shops, most public health officials would say, is the right decision. But in the case of Waterstones, the shutdown is seen by some has having come about only after some strong commentary in social media.

James Daunt: ‘To Take Time Out at the Very Least’

In London’s Underground. Image – iStockphoto: William87

As Benedicte Page reported Sunday evening at The Bookseller in London, “Over the weekend, staff had expressed serious concerns about their own and their customers’ safety on social media.

“No book is worth a human life and no blessing of publishing is worth endangering its people. Romantic notions of books’ importance are no match for life and health.”

“Following the announcement of the temporary closure,” she writes, “managing director James Daunt told The Bookseller, “We’ve been trying to work out as the days unfold whether there really are some staff who are working who are uncomfortable and unwilling, and we’ve been very clear throughout that nobody should be working if they find it difficult for whatever reason.

“There’s an indication that some people are coming to work out of duty. and we need to work through this and determine if it’s the case.

“We are also recognizing that today,” Daunt told Page, “a number of other retailers have made a similar decision [to close] … and we felt we need to take a time out at the very least.

“We still do continue to think we’re offering an extraordinarily valuable social service, and if the government determines that we are one of the essential services, once we are absolutely certain we can open our shops safely with booksellers who are willing to be there, we will do so. If all shops are obliged to close, we will follow whatever the government determines.”

Josh Halliday at The Guardian reported on Sunday that closing Waterstones’ 280 UK branches came after extensive employee complaint about how “senior head office staff, including Daunt, were working from home while booksellers, often those earning the least, were required to go into stores.”

Governmental guidance and requirements, of course, vary from market to market–and even among local jurisdictions, as those in the United States are discovering. And it was on Friday (March 20) that Boris Johnson ordered restaurants (for on-site dining) and pubs to close, along with theaters, cinemas, gyms, and leisure centers.

By Sunday, the Retail Gazette‘s Elias Johnson was reporting a fast-lengthening list of store chains that were closing across the UK amid the outbreak, including IKEA, John Lewis, the H&M Group, Selfridges, Harrods, Michael Kors, Gap, Lego, Abercrombie & Fitch, Apple, Calvin Klein, and more. But not bookstores.

Tweets have made it clear that some of the Waterstones workforce and customers indeed were concerned and spoke of it being unsafe to keep the bookstores open.

Getting a Grip: The Value of Books, and Life

Some commentary posted apparently by the Waterstones leadership has referred to the value of books in troubled times: “We all know that books provide solace, inspiration, education, and the other mental supports to periods of isolation, and the fact of our exceptionally busy sales over the last week demonstrates this is recognized by our customers.”

“The coronavirus COVID-19 is nonfiction. So are our lives. And the truth about actual priorities is the best story we have to offer.”

But of course, today’s strong television and film production, like music and other art forms, can provide sustenance, as well, and—like books, games, puzzles, and other valuable products in bookstores—these can be bought and sold online and by phone without risking physical commerce.

While many of us might argue that the intellectual and emotional support of good storytelling and informative nonfiction are important, books are not the only source of such aid and they’re not in the same class as food sold at grocers and medicines provided by pharmacies.

It’s a good moment for people who rightly prize the value of their industry to get a grip on what genuinely is essential.

You can’t live without food and certain medicines. You can live without books. In fact, at a time when digital experimentation is being made with such events as awards announcements—see our story today, which includes the Rathbones Folio Prize’s digital award announcement tonight—more experimentation in what can be done with digital support is a much more constructive response than risking physical shopping. As primeval a threat as the virus seems, maybe it’s time for story lovers to gather around digital fireplaces and start telling each other tales.

None of us is finding this awful passage easy. And none of us is likely to make the best choices every time.

But here’s the fundamental element of the coronavirus COVID-19’s contagion we need to keep uppermost in our minds, as reported by Dr. Sanjay Gupta, who is CNN’s chief medical correspondent: “New modeling data from China shows that four out of five people who are diagnosed with coronavirus contracted it from someone who didn’t know they had it.”

The profound danger inherent in this particular contagion is that it can be spread by people who have no symptoms and thus have no idea that they’re giving it to others.

  • “I feel fine” does not mean that you (a) don’t have the virus and (b) aren’t giving this virus to others.
  • “They feel fine” does not mean that your staff (a) hasn’t contracted the virus and (b) isn’t passing it to you, to each other, and to your consumers.

What’s more, recently reported data shows that younger adults are more vulnerable than originally thought. COVID-19 isn’t an illness stalking only the elderly.

This is why physical distancing—it’s not social, it’s physical—is so crucial. And bookstores’ contemporary approach of making themselves centers for bookish community is, ironically, precisely what needs to be put on hold now. The very last thing we need is people physically gathering for community. Even a jog outdoors is now permitted in some markets only as “solitary exercise,” meaning no running with buddies. This is that serious.

Indeed, using digital ordering and delivery as a fallback, bookselling needs to gauge when it’s not safe for delivery people, warehouse people, those who fulfill digitally placed orders. None of this is worth risking someone’s health.

The coronavirus COVID-19 is nonfiction. So are our lives.

And the truth about actual priorities is the best story we have to offer.


If your workday has changed for the coronavirus outbreak, we may be interested in following up with you on a story. Drop an email to Porter@PublishingPerspectives.com with “Coronavirus Worklife” in the subject line.

More from Publishing Perspectives the coronavirus outbreak is here. And more from us on bookselling here.

Download your free copy of our Spring Magazine here

In our Spring 2020 Magazine, Publishing Perspectives has interviewed publishers, industry experts, entrepreneurs, and authors to present a look at the book business for the coming year. Inside this issue of Publishing Perspectives Magazine, you’ll find articles and resources including:

  • Publishing and the coronavirus
  • Richard Charkin’s view of key industry challenges
  • China’s growing comic book market
  • Brussels Book Fair debuts its rights center
  • Eksmo CEO Evgeny Kapyev on Russia’s book market
  • Matchmaking for publishers and producers in Latin America
  • Book market data
  • A world tour of copyright developments
  • Translation sales resulting from Norway’s Frankfurter Buchmesse guest of honor program
  • An AI startup creating interactive stories
  • An interview with author Andrew Keen

Download ‘Publishing in Times of Crisis’ free of charge here.

About the Author

Porter Anderson

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Porter Anderson has been named International Trade Press Journalist of the Year in London Book Fair's 2019 International Excellence Awards. He is Editor-in-Chief of Publishing Perspectives. He co-founded The Hot Sheet, a newsletter for trade and indie authors, which now is owned and operated by Jane Friedman. He formerly was Associate Editor for The FutureBook at London's The Bookseller. Anderson also has worked as a senior producer, editor, and anchor with CNN.com, CNN International, and CNN USA, and as an arts critic (National Critics Institute) with The Village Voice and Dallas Times Herald.