The thing independent bookshops are missing most in lockdown? Their community

As many indies reopen today due to the government easing of lockdown measures, we ask what they've missed most. At the heart of it? A good old natter with readers.

Bookshops will be re-opening in England from today. Image: Getty

With people up bright and early this morning to head to the high street, there's some hope in sight for independent bookstores now the government has lifted lockdown measures for non-essential shops.

While pubs and cafés remain largely shuttered for now, indies are working out the best ways to bring books to their local customers while observing social distancing measures – in all sorts of innovative ways

While many businesses small and large have been struggling for custom due to the Covid-19 pandemic, independent bookshops in particular have been missing something else that money can’t buy: connection with their communities.

'Everything we do, whether it’s in-store or subscriptions, is based around having conversations about books'

“The main thing is you miss seeing customers and the conversations you used to have,” says Jack Clark, owner of The Portobello Bookshop near Edinburgh. With staff furloughed, even communicating via the shop’s normally active social media accounts has been difficult. “It’s sad because we’d planned a charity drive to try and get books to kids who could have really done with them, but we weren’t able to because of lockdown,” Clark explains. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to again at Christmas”.

While Scotland is easing lockdown more slowly than England, re-engaging with the community is at the heart of The Portobello Bookshop’s re-opening. “The plan is to open as a click and collect service,” Clark continues, “We’ll put a screen on the door, so people can come to the shop and collect the books and have a chat.”

In the meantime, staff are delivering books by bike to the local neighbourhood, saving customers who live in Portobello the cost of postage - and enabling a quick hello from the doorstep.

Bath-based bookshop Mr B’s Emporium has had an online shop for the past three years, which owner Nic Bottomley has said has been crucial during lockdown: “It’s helped us get through, to be honest”. But even the reassuring thud of a package on the doormat – and the shop’s famous hand-picked subscription scheme – can’t replace the meaningful conversations the shop’s staff have with their customers. “Everything we do, whether it’s in-store or subscriptions, is based around having conversations about books,” says Bottomley.

To re-instate that in a post-lockdown world, Bottomley has said Mr B’s Emporium will open to offer a kind of 'front desk' situation, “for collecting orders and making orders, and, most importantly, for customers to make contact with us.”

While the online shop has kept booksales going while Mr B’s has been shut, Bottomley points out that “those customers who are not comfortable with online shopping really will be missing that chance to have a conversation with a bookseller”.

“We’re empowering our team to get creative about what face coverings they want to wear and giving them money to spend on that or having us do it if they’d rather,” Bottomley adds. For Bottomley, chatting about books comes above browsing for them – something bookshop lovers have been craving for weeks. “Book recommendation conversations will be the first thing that comes back and I think that’s the most important thing to get back.”

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