Bookshops and Covid-19: ‘We can’t say to people you can’t look at the books’

Retailers try to chart safe path to reopening without losing what makes them special

“It’ll be one way round the dancefloor. A bit like the bumpers out in Salthill, a route around the shop.” Vinny Browne, manager of Charlie Byrne’s Bookshop in Galway, is talking about how the future looks.

From Monday June 8th as part of phase two of the reopening roadmap, bookshops are allowed to open to the public again, and they’re figuring out how to do that safely, depending on their own circumstances.

As Browne talks, there are piles of books and stacks of boxes all over the shop: online orders have been the only sales for months. Plexiglass has arrived for the long front counter. Reopening means managing the experience: queuing undercover in the mall, a sanitiser and gloves table at the door, staff “making sure people are comfortable and know how it’ll work, rather than a free-for-all”.

In figuring out the new normal, Bookselling Ireland (a branch of Booksellers’ Association of the UK and Ireland) has been “incredible” says Dawn Behan of Woodbine Books in Kilcullen, Co Kildare, with “practical advice and support and helping booksellers to keep up with all the changes”.


I can't see when we will be letting people browse the shop: 2m social distancing would just be too difficult in our space

It advised independent bookshops on protocols to keep staff and customers safe, and distributed reopening point-of-sale kits with distance signage and floor vinyls, as well as a €57 grant towards screens.

Charlie Byrne’s has seven interlocking rooms; as it grew, the destination bookshop in Galway city incorporated neighbouring units to evolve into a labyrinthine cornucopia. So for the socially distanced era there’ve a separate entrance and exit. Entering from the mall, people will move along a route into the bowels of the shop, then back towards the till, and out through the Middle Street door. They’ll remove smaller tables and chairs to make space, but large tables piled with books throughout the shop will remain: “they are natural separators”.

Browne reckons they can safely manage 20 or 25 customers inside at a time; he’s feeling his way about how it will all go. “It’s difficult to predict what the customer experience will be. It depends a lot on how they react. Our feeling is the public will be delighted they can now go into bookshops again and will relish the opportunity, in an environment that doesn’t feel threatening. You can be in and out reasonably quickly, not in the way you used to, but a similar experience in a shorter timeframe.”

Crucially, their bookshop experience will be a browsing one. “If we’re open we can’t say to people you can’t look at books. It’s the same way supermarkets and off-licences work – people pick up things and look at them, put them down and buy a different one. Handling the goods is not unique to bookshops.

“If we didn’t have that . . . people might as well sit at home and click-click.” The sanitisers and gloves make this possible, and while they might not, initially at least, spend as long, “browsing is intrinsic. It’s our job to make the public as reassured as possible by managing the space, to allow people to move around comfortably and managing the numbers.”

Every independent bookshop is different, in customer profile and what their physical layout allows, and over past weeks they’ve been working out how to adapt.

Cian Byrne of Maynooth Bookshop (they also have university bookshops in Maynooth and UCD) is secretary of Bookselling Ireland. They’re now working behind closed doors with just family inside, planning to bring back other staff next week. He’ll spread out work stations, stagger start times, zone the shop for specific jobs to keep staff apart.

A large counter dominating the front of the shop means “I can’t see when we will be letting people browse the shop: 2m social distancing would just be too difficult in our space. Click and collect will be the maximum contact with customers, which is very worrying. We want to be able to offer a lot more to our customers; we are trying to think of ways to bring back elements of what makes bookshops great.” Schoolbook orders are a big part of their summer, and he’s prioritising creating space for his 10 staff to fill them safely.

For bookshops that sell schoolbooks, it generates one-third of their income, according to a Booksellers’ Association survey.

Byrne hopes to make it possible later for customers inside. “Festivals and book clubs going online have been great and a benefit for people who might not otherwise get to them, but it’s not the same as a book signing or reading in a shop.” Along with other booksellers, he sees events – signings, launches, readings – as a long way in the future.

Business has dropped by roughly 80 per cent since restrictions were introduced, but online sales at least help to pay bills until I can reopen properly

Halfway Up The Stairs children’s bookshop in Greystones is quite small and Trish Hennessy thinks they’ll restrict visitors to one family group at a time. They’ll have queuing outside, hand sanitiser at the door, plexiglass till-screens, handwashing and surface disinfection.

“It’s important to us that children be allowed in the shop, but we’ll ask parents to keep a close eye on them and be mindful how long they spend browsing.” They’re considering allowing customers, especially with vulnerable family, to book an appointment as first customers of the day.

“The core of our shop is giving personal recommendations and it’s great we’ve been able to maintain this via email, but we’re looking forward to working with customers in person again. It will be a changed experience and we will adapt as we need to. As the shop only opened last October, this is a very steep learning curve for me.” Support “has been wonderful” – local and nationally, from the Booksellers’ Association, and her landlord, who has fitted equipment such as plexiglass screens.

A sense of loss is palpable from Alice Walsh at the Village Bookshop in Terenure. “Things are very different for us now. We’ve had to adapt to online and phone orders practically overnight. We always had a strong interaction with customers in the shop and our markets in Marlay Park and People’s Park Dún Laoghaire. We’ll miss our bookshop at All Together Now and other festivals. People would browse and chat with us (and each other) about books. All that has changed.”

They’ve had great local support but online is “now our only outlet, so it’s financially stressful”. Their takeaway and delivery service is “sadly without the large profits our culinary neighbours are making”.

Many independent retailers have ramped up their sites over a matter of weeks to sell online, and several mention An Post’s deal for independent bookshops, allowing up to 10kg for a flat €2.95. Hennessy calls it “a complete game changer”, Browne says it’s been “a real boon for the trade”, encouraging “nascent online retailers to get their toe in the marketplace, helping local shops compete with the deep discounts of Amazon et al”. He wishes it could continue beyond its June 30th finish, as online will continue to be vital for independents.

Woodbine Books owner Behan wasn’t interested in selling online until now because of postage costs, but the scheme has been “a lifesaver for small bookshops”. She says “business has dropped by roughly 80 per cent since restrictions were introduced, but online sales at least help to pay bills until I can reopen properly. I have been quite lucky. My very kind landlord offered to refund my March rent and offered a waiver every month since. So far, I have not needed to take up this offer, but it’s comforting to know it’s there if I need it.”

Everything that made us special – the buzz, the craic, sharing stories, food, good coffee and wonderful books, will not be possible for a long time to come

A Kildare Local Enterprise Office scheme helped develop their website for schoolbooks last year, and since Covid-19 restrictions came in they added the entire stock. The lack of school and childcare means Woodbine will have a limited reopening on June 8th. Behan may organise two teams to limit contacts and is moving furniture off the floor for a one-way system. Measures “will inevitably change the atmosphere – the best thing about working in a bookshop is chatting to people about books and this will no longer be possible, at least in the short term. But the end result will be worth the sacrifice. Many of our customers are elderly or vulnerable.”

Hodges Figgis in Dublin city, owned by Waterstones, is also removing tables, and working out how many people will be allowed at a time under the guidelines, says manager Liam Donnelly. After staff training, they’ll reopen on June 10th, “working hard to ensure that the shop is a safe place for both our booksellers and our customers”, with visors, till screens and sanitiser. Directional signs will create a one-way system on stairs, and browsing will be possible.

Covid-19 welfare schemes were vital for many bookshops in the short-term, but even with support and gearing up online, business is well down. In Maynooth, Byrne says they’ve lost all revenue from two college shops, and on Main Street they’re down to 30-40 per cent; overall, turnover is down to 10-15 per cent of their usual takings.

As lockdown begins to ease, Bookselling Ireland says bookshops are “incredibly worried about the long-term viability of their business”. It urges a Government rent support scheme mirroring Covid-19 staff payments, on a sliding scale so those worst affected get most help with this fixed cost. Chairwoman Heidi Murphy points out schoolbooks are a bedrock of income, and urges Government caution about pushing schoolbook sales online, or any scheme excluding local bookshops.

Many Irish bookshops are facing unsustainable losses, she says, “which will likely lead to closures, impacting local communities where they play a vital cultural role”.

In May, Janet Hawkins of Blessington Books announced “with a very heavy heart” she was closing. “Everything that made us special – the buzz, the craic, sharing stories, food, good coffee and wonderful books, will not be possible for a long time to come. The emotional, physical and financial strain of trying to hang on is too immense, and it is better to finish on a high with a wealth of special memories.” There was a groundswell of local support to keep the bookshop.

In Maynooth, Byrne is heartened at the direction of Covid-19 numbers, but “I’m pining for things being the way they were in bookshops, and still trying to figure out other ways to do things”.