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England’s bookshops should be classed as essential, booksellers argue | Books


The Booksellers Association has called on the government to classify bookshops as essential retailers during England’s second lockdown, as other retailers that sell books like WH Smith and supermarkets get to remain open.

In a letter to government ministers today, the BA’s managing director Meryl Halls described bookshops as “lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope”. Keeping them closed while allowing other retailers who sell books to remain open was “potentially ruinous commercially and is also morally problematic”, she wrote.

“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,” said 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.”

James Daunt, chief executive of Waterstones, agreed. “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.”

Bookshops are open everywhere in the UK except England, which will remain in lockdown until 2 December. Scotland is under a five-tier system of Covid controls, Wales has just come out of a two-week lockdown and Northern Ireland is in a four-week partial lockdown.

Daunt and Halls also pointed to the fact that bookshops have been designated as essential in other countries, including Belgium. In France, bookshops have been declared nonessential and are closed, but supermarkets have been stopped from selling books.

The BA’s call has been echoed by some of the UK’s biggest authors, including Philip Pullman, Salman Rushdie, Ali Smith and Simon Schama who, in a separate letter sent to No 10, asked prime minister Boris Johnson to class books as essential items and allow bookshops and libraries to remain open “if they so wish” in the second English lockdown.

“We … should not, as a country, allow bookshops to go out of business; we have some of the world’s best,” said the authors, citing the boom in sales and library borrowing during the pandemic as proof of books’ “importance to the mental health and happiness of the nation”.

Halls, in her letter to government, said that bookshops are “entirely behind” the push to suppress infection rates and that “massive investment” has gone into making stores Covid-compliant. “Responsible retailers have ensured that staff and consumer safety is at the top of their priority list,” she 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 a way of keeping the nation’s spirits up while they’re locked in their homes,” she wrote, echoing the words of Pullman as she added: “Our bookshops are lanterns of civilisation and, for many, beacons of hope. We urge you to consider classifying them as essential retailers.”

Daunt, who closed Waterstones shops on 23 March after some of the chain’s booksellers said they felt at risk in store, said the chain had invested significantly in making 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,” he said.

For Daunt, classifying 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.”



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