Our Reading Lives

Bookselling During A Pandemic: What Fresh Hell Is This?

Being a bookseller certainly has its perks: being the first to hold (and buy) the new titles that come in, a good discount, being surrounded by books every day — but it also has its challenges, and the challenges have certainly been exacerbated by the pandemic. Just like pretty much any other profession, booksellers had to adapt to the new ways of working this profession.

A colleague, who traveled to Berlin last year for a writer’s residency, noted that in Germany bookshops were counted as essential shops, like supermarkets and pharmacies. In the Netherlands — and from what I see around me, I’d risk saying in most of the western world — it is not so. Bookshops were and continue to be labelled under non-essential, like any other retail shop, and so are libraries. 

I started working at an indie bookstore in Rotterdam, The Netherlands, in January 2020, a few months before COVID-19 took over. In the last two years, the bookstore has been put under different measures at different times: partially closed, completely closed, open with distance and masks, open without distance or masks, open by appointment, open with reduced hours, and closed but with the possibility for clients to pick orders up. These measures are not written down in the specific order in which they were implemented, and at the time I am writing this article we are again closed, with a reduced schedule, and a window for picking up orders.

At the best of times it is tricky, but doable. Or rather, there is no other choice but to do it like this, lucky we can at least provide some service. Sometimes it is exhausting, and it has definitely created some anxiety within a job I find quite enjoyable.

The Things That Changed

Before the pandemic, selling books was straight forward, right? People came in, they looked for something, we gave them advice if they needed it. We rang them up, they paid, sometimes we had to gift wrap one book or another, but that was it. The client left the shop, hopefully content with the choices, and we went on to do something else: unpack orders, price books, organise books in shelves. We answered a few emails, or picked up phone calls, and we filled in book orders. In sum, there was a systematised job, sprinkled with the break in the routine brought in by the various clients that came by every day. Fun, enjoyable.

When the shops closed here in the Netherlands the first time around, we weren’t even allowed to have a pick-up window. Meaning that every single order had to come in via email, or phone, we would find the book in the shop or order it, wrap it up for delivery, and either deliver it in town by bike or send it in the post.

When described like this, it doesn’t seem like a lot of hassle, but the extra energy it requires to work this way is something I hope we don’t have to go through again. All these steps take triple the time it is needed to simply help a client that can just walk in. Luckily, eventually the government allowed us to have a pick up window, which saved us at least the trouble of having to wrap, and deliver or send every single book.

Of course, the indie bookstore I work at continues to be one of the lucky ones because we are still open and getting orders, but you cannot compare the revenue pre- and mid-pandemic.

It also became almost impossible for clients to find books at random, which caused some publishing dates to be pushed back, and a lot of books to stay almost forgotten in shelves. For sure, the attention published books have received — or lacked — in the last two years is something to have in consideration: very few book events happened (and those who did were done strictly online, or online and with a very small in-person crowd), and readers who do not keep a close look at what is coming out certainly missed on many new books, which impacted sales.

People didn’t necessarily start ordering like crazy because they were at home and had more time to read. Quite the contrary. We did have more orders than we expected, but the income flow is not comparable to that brought by clients passing by, people who very often didn’t even know we were there before they bumped into our shop by chance. 

Another Year, The Same Pandemic

At the beginning of last December, the government here implemented newer lockdown rules, after a whole summer of pretty much abolishing them. Softer measures, like the return of the masks and a minimum distance to keep. But less than two weeks later, as the cases continued to soar, new, stronger rules were put in place. 

Personally, I’m all for these measures; I just think they should have been implemented a lot earlier. We keep going in circles and, doing some quick math, this is already our fourth or fifth lockdown, while at the same time we never really got out of it.

In a bookshop, what changes in the day to day life is the work flow, and how much your attention has to be divided. It’s one thing receiving ten emails in a day and a couple of WhatsApp messages asking to order something; very different is having to answer full enquiries about book recommendations via email, while the phone is ringing more often with requests about the same, and you have to go back and forth with the clients about the possibilities and recommendations, without them being there to decide on the spot. It’s trying. It’s three times the work for about half the revenue. And while I still love this job to my bones, and I still want to keep wearing a mask, and keeping distance, and hope people stay home as much as possible, somedays you just want to throw caution out the window and have a regular, bookshop-filled-with-customers kind of day (but not really, because there is too much at stake to treat this like it’s not an urgent and serious health crisis). Mostly, we are all angry at the government and at how this whole pandemic has been dealt with. 

Other Booksellers’ Experiences

Above is my particular experience as a bookseller in the Netherlands, but I’ve compared notes to a colleague working in the U.S., and while the strictness of rules and how they are applied are not always similar, our experiences are. “For the most part I’ve had an okay time,” says J., who works in a wealthy suburb in a state with mask mandates, “but I’ve had the occasional customer that I had issues with. Anything from someone whose mask keeps slipping, or people who think they need to take their mask off when they can’t hear me.” And sometimes there really is no perfect way to deal with difficult customers: “I’ve had a customer refuse to put a mask on, even though we provide them, and they wouldn’t leave the store. My only choice was to ring them out as fast as I could.”

Because yes, besides having to deal with the daily troubles of working through a pandemic, we also have to deal with people making comments about how everything is so unnecessary, trespassing into your personal space, and being upset when you politely ask them to follow the rules. 

The way to handle orders is also very similar. “There was a point before we had a website where we were handling all the orders via email. People would write what they felt like reading, and we’d write whole essays about what books they should read. Sometimes they’d buy something based on those letters, sometimes not. It was a lot of work and time for a little bit of profit”, J. concludes. 

And they are right. The most complicated part of working through a pandemic is the effort it takes to get on with tasks that were round up almost effortlessly before.

We still want to – and ultimately I like to believe we do – provide the best experience possible for the client, while leaving a little bit of room for this job to still be enjoyable, and rewarding.

So if you approach a bookseller during this pandemic, make sure you take this into account. Here is a sweet and on-point article from our contributor Gretchen, about A Case For Being Kind To Tired Booksellers. We can all certainly use a case of that.