Dedicated to books. Matthew Wake with Clare O’Dea, author of The Naked Irish. (Photo: Books, Books, Books)
This is part of our ongoing series on books and the publishing industry as well as YouthWrites, our initiative to encourage young people across the planet to improve their writing skills, better understand the role of quality journalism and to read more. A reminder: we make our content free worldwide. If you like what we do, please support us.
A pandemic swept through my bookshop ten years ago. It started quite innocuously when a woman who ran a book club and often stopped by to chat books said to me: “My husband bought me an e-reader for my birthday – but don’t worry, I’ll still buy books here.” I had always enjoyed our conversations and, like a lot of regulars in my shop, our relationship had started to inhabit the space between customers and friends.
This was the last conversation we had and over the course of countless similar conversations I learnt that the sentence actually meant, “This is the last time you’ll ever see me.”
Losing 95 per cent of my business in a year focused my thoughts, as did hosting a book club in my shop where all the members bought their books elsewhere. I realized that while everyone agrees that a bookshop is essential to the literary community, very few people are prepared to shop in one when buying books online appears cheaper and more convenient.
Realizing that following my dream of selling fiction to bibliophiles would lead to bankruptcy, I more or less left that market, started selling to schools, libraries and universities. I began to treat the bookshop more as a book-lined office. Then ten years later the coronavirus struck.
The second shock
I was working with my colleague Rachel when the news was announced that shops had to shut that day. We rushed out to buy stamps, envelopes and packing tape and contacted our teachers to inform them that we would send books to whichever student needed them. (See article on working with high school students to encourage writing – and reading, plus a chance to get published)
Then we contacted all the people whose books reservations were sitting on our shelves and told them the same thing. It was a frantic afternoon as we raced the countdown clock, making the best decisions we could with the scarcest of information and trying not to panic. When six o’clock struck, we looked at each other. We felt enormously emotional because we love selling books and neither of us knew when things might return to normal or even what ‘normal’ might look like.
As expected, a lot of schools cancelled their orders, along with a couple of book fairs we were relying on. We started boxing books we could send back and I tried to balance the bills we had to pay versus the ones we could delay.
Falling in love with their local bookshops
What I hadn’t expected was that, seemingly overnight, people fell in love with their local bookshop again. Customers who ordered infrequently began sending us their wish lists. Enquiries landed in my inbox from new customers and I’ve heard from some of the people who stopped using the bookshop all those years ago. I’ve been picking up their orders as well as the threads of those conversations we’d left hanging for the better part of a decade.
I have tried to explain this phenomena of shopping locally to myself. The closest I can get is by comparing it to applauding health workers every evening. Over the past weeks this ritual has morphed into a moment when we reconnect to our communities and reassure ourselves that we are not alone. In counting our blessings we also remember the things that are valuable to us and which, amongst the pressures of our normal lives, we struggle to find the time for. Local bookshops, with their limited opening times, eccentric owners and fiddly ordering systems seem to be one of them – and it’s something I am deeply grateful for.
I hope this will continue. But I do not underestimate the power of modern life to overcome our better natures. We have come to expect to receive instantly the things we want and the biggest businesses are designed to facilitate that wish. Not being available to work 24/7 became an aberration, as anyone who has answered a work email on a Sunday afternoon will agree. If a customer sends me a message on Good Friday evening, in my mind at least, I still have less than 12 hours to answer it.
On demand instant printing: not our solution
A few years ago something called the Espresso Book Machine (EBM) was launched which promised to level the playing field for independent booksellers. The EBM is able to print and bind a book in the time it takes to make a cup of coffee and, with access to millions of titles, it means that we could hold a virtual stock almost as large as an online retailers.
I investigated this idea, and ultimately decided not to pursue it. At around USD 100,000, the cost was prohibitively high, and the database contains only books which are out of copyright. As none of the Big Five publishers are willing to allow bookshops to print their front-list titles, the majority of EBMs are located in libraries and university book stores. People use them to print academic papers and other hard-to-find titles. They appear in independent bookshops too, where they are often used by self-published authors. However, most of the machines are located in North America. In France they are situated in printing schools, and the two machines in the Netherlands are in American bookshops.
We will hold as much stock, virtually or otherwise, as the giants. We will never be cheaper than the giants because Rachel and I take home the same modest wage. The bookshop also pay taxes in the country it operates in. I also believe very strongly in treating people with the same respect I would like to be treated with. I don’t aspire to the kind of success that comes with paying minimum wage to workers I can dispense with when they are no longer useful to me. This is not the society I want my children to grow up in.
Books to read in isolation: a chance to rediscover literature
I’m not hopelessly naive. The book industry as a whole is in crisis. Two of our major suppliers have closed their doors permanently in the last couple of years because of rising costs and weakening demand. I suspect that this summer’s publishing calendar has been ripped up. The largest wholesalers in Europe have been forced to close temporarily during the crisis as they cannot offer safe working conditions to their warehouse employees. I would hate to be an author whose book was due for publication right now. Actually, I’d hate to depend on writing full time for a living as the major publishing houses only have slots for new authors providing guaranteed bestsellers.
Having said that, I am encouraged by the lists of “books to read in self-isolation” which have proliferated on social media. They tend to feature up-beat non-fiction titles which aim to either explain the world to us in a new way or help us find calm in the midst of chaos. One of the delights of reading is that a single book can change the course of our lives. Even a single line has the power to enlighten us.
Many of the lists I’ve seen feature worthy titles, yet might be somewhat discouraging to someone getting back into spending time with a book. After all, books are no longer the dominant cultural force. Streaming services, social media and gaming apps are. Reading requires deep concentration, a skill which we seem to lose the longer we stay online (and I am as guilty as anyone).
Whenever I fall out of the habit of reading, I pick it up again by choosing an easy book I know I’ll love before tackling harder titles which demand more from me. I would advise anyone eyeing these lists to do the same as a way to avoid getting halfway through a book, only to put it down again because the our phone is singing its siren song and its impossible to ignore.
Despite the spike in demand my bookshop has experienced, we’re still going to be at least CHF/USD 20,000 down when we reopen again. And I consider myself to be one of the lucky ones. I have friends in the restaurant, retail and brewing business – English-speaking entrepreneurs who set up their own businesses in Switzerland as I did – who are facing losses many times greater than mine. It will take them a year or two to rebuild, even with the help of the Swiss government loans and on the assumption that things return to normal during the summer.
Maybe this enforced break we will help us discover that a slower pace of life suits us better, that we’ll value our communities more, use our cars less, find other ways of doing things. No one knows what will happen. The only prediction I’ll make is that Rachel and I will still be here selling books and talking fiction. It’s what we love to do. We’re looking forward to it. We’re booksellers.
Matthew Wake owns Books Books Books, the English Bookshop in Lausanne. He runs the Swiss Creative Writing Prize for high school students in the Swiss public education system.