Covid-19 rules create ‘uneven playing field’ in bookselling

Government urged to designate bookshops essential service, as in France and Italy

Louisa Cameron of Raven Books: ‘I saw the difference that having a 90-second conversation from the garden gate could make to people.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

Louisa Cameron of Raven Books: ‘I saw the difference that having a 90-second conversation from the garden gate could make to people.’ Photograph: Nick Bradshaw/The Irish Times

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Louisa Cameron has become a familiar sight over the pandemic, whizzing through coastal south county Dublin on her bike, its basket stacked high with parcels, and three or four bags on each handlebar.

The owner of Raven Books in Blackrock made a decision last April to start offering free deliveries to customers within 2km, reasoning that doing it herself by bike reduced the number of contacts involved in every transaction.

Exactly one year on, she is still doing deliveries six days a week, cycling up to 30km within the 2km radius with up to 15kg of books on the bike some days, while she waits for click and collect to resume.

She is fitter than she has ever been, but she is not doing it for health: “I started out from a very practical perspective – just to get books out to people. I wanted to keep the business going, that’s a given.

“But I also wanted to do something practical to support my community. I saw the difference that having a 90-second conversation from the garden gate could make to people,” she told The Irish Times. Still, she admits, “It’s exhausting.”

Meanwhile, a shop selling newspapers and books has reopened in a shopping centre nearby, while Tesco and Supervalu are selling books. Branches of Eason are open, too.

“Not to start complaining, but that is the challenge of the uneven playing field. Why would you pay €6 to ship a book when you can walk into a shop and just buy it?” asks Cameron.

‘Positive responses’

Earlier this month, Bookselling Ireland complained to Taoiseach Micheál Martin, asking for bookshops to be deemed an essential service, as they are in France and Italy.

“Many businesses deemed essential have been selling books with impunity due to inconsistencies in the application and policing of the current rules,” it said.

Heidi Murphy, chairwoman of Bookselling Ireland, said the organisation had received “a large number of positive responses from TDs across the political spectrum”. But there is still no date for the resumption of click and collect.

A report by economist Jim Power for Bookselling Ireland highlights the shops’ challenges. Booksellers have been able to increase online sales, but “modest sales” have been demanding “on their already stretched resources”.

Outlining the extra steps involved, Dawn Behan of Woodbine Books in in Kilcullen, Co Kildare says: “People email in their orders, or send it in on the website, then we tell them if we have it or if it has to be ordered in, then we have to send them a secure payment link so they can pay online, or we ring them and take their credit card number. And then they have to give us their address and finally we have to deliver it.”

Her husband looks after this step, driving around with deliveries in the evening after his own day’s work is finished. “Click and collect would take two or three steps out of every single transaction.”

Woodbine Books sells school stationery, so it could already have reopened as an essential service but Behan believes that wouldn’t be “entering into the spirit of the lockdown. It’s not about who can find a way around the rules”.

Sales are half of previous years, “but it hasn’t been as bad as it could have been. Customers have stayed loyal and put in orders. We’re able to do enough business to pay the bills,” she says.

Optimism

Booksellers have been innovative. Dubray Books started a subscription service tailored to customers’ tastes, with more than 700 subscribers signed up. Halfway up the Stairs, a children’s bookshop in Greystones, Co Wicklow – which was open just five months when the pandemic hit – launched a monthly Children’s Book Salon with writer Sarah Webb. Others are offering tailored, themed book bundles, crime bundles, or essay and short story bundles.

A Tale of Three Indies is an initiative launched by Behan with the Maynooth Bookshop and Antonia’s Bookstore in Trim, Co Meath. Featured authors have included Manchán Magan and poet Mary O’Donnell, whose online book launch attracted attendees from Brazil and Germany. “Your audience can be so much bigger online,” says Behan.

Live literary gatherings planned by Tertulia Bookshop in Westport, Co Mayo, had to be put on hold when the pandemic hit, but owners Neil Paul and Brid Conroy, just eight months in business, launched Tertulia TV.

Since then, they have featured readings and interviews with authors including Shane Hegarty and Rachael English, along with a philosophy club, and they are developing a free member’s forum for book lovers and emerging and established authors to meet.

“We’re optimistic,” says Conroy. “We’re using the time to our best advantage. We’re availing of grants and developing our online presence. There is help available, and I don’t have the sense we’ve been abandoned.”

But she adds, “When some retailers are open and we’re not, we’re at this huge disadvantage. It’s seriously damaging the industry. Our online businesses are suffering too.”

Despite all the challenges, to Cameron’s amazement, sales are actually up this year. “The push to shop local and shop Irish has made a massive difference. But the hard work is definitely part of it too.”