Is reading ‘essential’? Europe divided over whether to keep bookshops open during lockdowns

Culture Life

Many of us love a good book, but should bookshops be classified as ‘essential’ establishments during a pandemic? As new lockdown restrictions are imposed across Europe, government ministers are reaching different conclusions on this controversial matter.

As Oxford students (particularly if you are of the humanities persuasion), our relationship with reading is often complicated. Even self-proclaimed bookworms have admitted to losing their love of reading after being holed up in the Gladstone Link for hours on end in the throes of an essay crisis. That being said, there are still thousands of us who love delving into the printed word during our leisure time. And, given the current circumstances, literary escapism is becoming more important than ever. But accessing physical reading material during the last year has often become difficult due to the restrictions put in place in many countries to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak.

During the first wave of lockdowns over the spring, bookshops and libraries across Europe were forced to close their doors. When the governments of the UK, France, Belgium, Germany and Italy decided to reimpose lockdown measures in the autumn, shopkeepers, key figures in the public eye and members of the general population began calling for bookshops to be allowed to remain open during this second round of closures.

This is not just a matter of protecting independent businesses from the economic difficulty that another lockdown will bring – although that is a significant part of it. Moreover, the desire to preserve the cultural ‘experience’ of bookshop browsing should not be overlooked. Arguing against the closure in France, Anne Martelle, president of the Syndicat de la librairie française (SLF, one of the country’s largest bookseller unions) pointed out that “now that cinemas and theatres are closed, bookshops are the only place where people can access culture”. At a time when the arts are suffering greatly, it is understandable that culture lovers have become even more protective of spaces offering literary diversion.

In addition to the economic and cultural arguments, the need to protect emotional and mental wellbeing is often cited by those arguing against bookshop closures. Reading is generally acknowledged to be an effective way of maintaining good mental health. Researchers at the Liverpool Health Inequalities Research Institute observed the changing levels of clinically diagnosed depression in participants of a reading group and found improvements that were “statistically significant”. On an anecdotal level, many of us notice improvements in mood and stress levels when we find time to read more.

Belgian bookshop owners find themselves in the extraordinary position of being rebranded as ‘essential’.

It is on this basis that the Belgian government has decided to keep bookshops open during this second lockdown. Although many businesses which were shut back in the spring have once again been forced to close for a six-week period from 2nd November – two weeks longer than in France and the UK – Belgian bookshop owners find themselves in the extraordinary position of being rebranded as ‘essential’. Deputy prime minister Georges Gilkinet recognised the important role of books in fostering cultural appreciation and good mental health amongst the country’s citizens: “We must remember to care for our bodies and our minds!” he told his followers on Twitter.

Unfortunately for bookshop owners elsewhere in Europe, not all governments share Gilkinet’s outlook. Despite France boasting one of the strongest literary heritages in the world (no country has more Nobel Prize winners in literature), president Emmanuel Macron and prime minister Jean Castex once again ordered bookshops to close until at least 1st December.

This decision met with more resistance than during the first lockdown. Just days after the reconfinement was announced, three of France’s biggest bookseller unions issued a statement asking the government to rethink the closure. They described reading as an “essential activity”, claiming that books give people the opportunity “to understand, to think, to escape, to be distracted, but also to share and to communicate, even during social isolation”. The mayor of Paris Anne Hidalgo and former president François Hollande also gave their support to the movement, urging the government to protect culture and freedom of thought. Yet all of these requests were unsuccessful, and bookshops in France continue to be classed as ‘non-essential’. On the other side of the Channel, a similar request from the Booksellers Association to UK government ministers also proved fruitless.

France offers one of the most interesting case studies on the ‘essential’ status of reading during lockdown, as the policies surrounding the sale of books encapsulate the delicate balancing act between public health, mental wellbeing, cultural tradition and the survival of independent businesses. Although the French government refuses to allow independent bookshops to open, they are sensitive to concerns that the second lockdown will accelerate their demise. Consequently, Castex announced that from 3rd November all large supermarkets and hypermarkets would need to stop selling ‘non-essential’ products – including books. These sections are now cordoned off from the public, the logic being that large supermarket chains will be unable to profit from the losses of small businesses.

Whilst the policy is theoretically supposed to protect independent bookshops, it is vulnerable to two key criticisms. Firstly, the fact that it places further limits on physical access to books adds another obstacle for those who rely on reading as a means of maintaining good mental health. Secondly, it pushes customers towards online companies such as Amazon. Not only do independent booksellers lose out, but so do supermarkets. It is hardly surprising that Michel-Édouard Leclerc, president of the hypermarket chain E.Leclerc, congratulated Castex on being “the best Amazon employee in the whole of France”.

Admittedly, there are ways for bookshops to continue trading even when they are closed to customers. Since the start of the first lockdown, independent bookshops across Europe have devised innovative ways of getting their products to their clients, with one Antwerp bookshop developing a rapid same-day delivery system using bikes.

‘Click and collect’ has also become popular. Whether the order is placed via the Internet, email or a phone call, this method allows customers to access books and have a taste of the bookshop ‘experience’ whilst minimising costs for the seller. This solution can be particularly helpful for smaller shops which might not have access to sufficient funds or technological resources to create their own website or offer a full delivery service.

…many independent bookshops are struggling to find financially viable methods of staying afloat.

However, ‘click and collect’ is not suitable for all bookshops and there are clear disparities between how well larger and smaller establishments are handling the closure period. Whereas giants such as Waterstones can afford to keep on staff members to fulfil ‘click and collect’ orders and Blackwell’s is in a position to offer free shipping on every order, many independent bookshops are struggling to find financially viable methods of staying afloat. In the short term this might not seem especially problematic: by offering these services the likes of Waterstones and Blackwell’s are arguably combatting the rise of Amazon whilst ensuring that readers can access books, both points that many would view as positive. However, the issue arises when we consider the implications for small-scale businesses. Even if a reader chooses to use big retailers other than Amazon, this still puts the future of the small-town bookshop in danger – something that many people view as undermining one of the key principals of literary enjoyment.

This is where new technological initiatives come in. In January of this year, writer and co-founder of Literary Hub Andy Hunter launched Bookshop.org, a website which gives booksellers an online shopfront. Partnering shops earn a 30% commission on any sales they generate, roughly 50% goes to the publisher and the remainder goes towards the costs of running the website. For non-affiliate sales, 10% is put into a collective pot and then distributed equally between all independent bookshops every six months. Since launching, Bookshop.org has generated more than $8 million for US booksellers. The UK version of Bookshop.org launched at the start of November. Mr Hunter hopes that it will play a vital role in “safeguarding the future” of these establishments which he believes are “essential to a healthy culture”. A similar initiative has just been launched in France by Adèle Fabre. ‘Je soutiens ma librairie’ (‘I’m supporting my bookshop’) is a website which allows people to access information about independent bookshops in France and directs them to the establishment’s own website for orders.

These online sites challenge traditional definitions of the bookshop ‘experience’. Although many elements are retained, the ritualistic aspect of browsing in a physical shop cannot be entirely communicated through a website. This forces readers to consider which elements of reading culture are ‘essential’ and which ones might need to be jettisoned in order for independent bookshops to survive.

The pandemic has prompted us to consider the capacity of books and bookshops to fulfil our economic, cultural, cognitive and emotional needs. It has forced government ministers across Europe and the wider world to decide whether these benefits outweigh the potential risk to public health – a judgement which many would agree is almost impossible to make. But the past few months have also led to an extraordinary level of innovation amongst the bookselling community. Although for many of us books will always remain ‘essential’, it is likely that the precise nature of this necessity will continue to evolve as the future unfolds.

Image credit: Rachel MacNaghten

 

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