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Covid-19 pandemic hasn't spoiled the plot for independent bookshops

Journal.ie logo Journal.ie 6 days ago Ian Curran
© Shutterstock Ingus Kruklitis

REPORTS OF THE death of independent bookshops have been greatly exaggerated but the pandemic is showing just how hardy some of Ireland’s smaller operators can be. Business restrictions might have put a stop to their in-shop retail operations, but a huge demand for reading materials from stuck-at-home bookworms and stressed parents has given shops a lifeline.

Some are better equipped than others to weather the crisis. “I suppose we were lucky enough,” says Sarah Kenny, marketing manager of Kenny’s Bookshop on the Tuam Road in Galway City. Having launched its first website in 1994, a year before a small company called Amazon arrived on the scene, Kenny’s claims to be just the second bookshop in the world to go online.

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Consequently, its customer base has always had an international element to it but during the pandemic, domestic orders have become the shop’s bread and butter. Kenny, whose grandparents set up the shop in 1940, says, “We’ve been online for years so it would have been a huge part of our business anyway.

“I know a lot of bookshops have been, let’s say, setting up a website or putting a lot more of their stock online at the moment so that they can facilitate online orders. But we were already in the position where we had an established presence.”

A bit mad

On the opposite coast and end of the spectrum in terms of online presence is Books Upstairs on D’Olier Street in Dublin 2. Manager Louisa Earls, whose father, Maurice, originally set up the shop on Dame Street in 1978 and still owns it, says that their situation is “a bit mad”.

Dublin Ireland, February 19 2018: Large group of people walking on Dame St. This street is home to many business and close to Trinity. © Getty Dublin Ireland, February 19 2018: Large group of people walking on Dame St. This street is home to many business and close to Trinity. “We didn’t have a website. It’s currently in development, which is something that, coincidentally, we had only just started at the time of the lockdown.”

Instead, Earls and her co-workers have managed to tack an online element onto their business in quick fashion, using a simple, make-shift landing page, hosted on marketing platform Mailchimp, to advertise and sell its wares. Earls says that not having “pre-existing infrastructure” has even been something of a blessing in disguise.

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“Not having a whole inventory on a website meant that we kind of had to think creatively. So very early on, we put out this book bundles idea… in a way to recreate the feeling of when you go into a bookshop, and maybe you don’t know what you’re looking for in a new book you didn’t even know existed and you end up buying it.”

Customers can also request specific books through the webpage and by email.

Moment in the sun

Both Earls and Kenny have been blown away by the demand for online orders, which has kept the cash flowing into their respective businesses during the shutdown. But before the pandemic, independent bookshops were having a moment in the sun.

After two consecutive decades of decline — as Amazon asserted its dominance and with e-books and browsing online beginning to replace real thing — the numbers of independent Irish and UK booksellers had been growing each year for the past three. As reported by The Guardian, membership of the Booksellers Association had jumped from 868 in 2017 to 890 last year.

Gallery: Ireland in the coronavirus crisis (Photo Services)

Although the increase is decidedly modest, it has to been seen in the context of broader retail patterns. Early last year, Irish business lobbying group Ibec said there is “consensus in the sector that footfall levels in traditional shopping hot spots are continuing to decline… largely as a result of a move to online shopping”.

In January, before most of us had even heard of Covid-19, Dublin Town, an organisation representing city centre businesses, had noted a decline in footfall in Dublin City Centre of about 15% from the same time last year. With everything seemingly going against them, how have small, independent bookshops been able to hold on?

Kenny and Earls believe it’s because book-buyers have actually become more thoughtful about their shopping habits, a trend they believe has been copper-fastened by the Covid-19 crisis. “I don’t know exactly from when to date it, but there has actually been an incredible surge in conscientious shopping,” says Earls. 

People push their bicycles towards a sign indicating social distancing of 2 metres is required in a park following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dublin, Ireland, May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne © Thomson Reuters People push their bicycles towards a sign indicating social distancing of 2 metres is required in a park following the outbreak of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19), in Dublin, Ireland, May 8, 2020. REUTERS/Clodagh Kilcoyne These days, there are actually a lot more people being conscientious about where they spend their money, wanting to support small and independent businesses and realising that if you don’t shop somewhere, then maybe it won’t be there.

“I would say that sort of thinking has been around for the last few years, but it was not maybe 10 years ago or beyond.” Kenny thinks there’s just something in the Irish “psyche”. “We are just are eager to support local and independent and to move away from Amazon where possible. It’s kind of naturally happened. So it’s been very positive”.

Reading habits

As for lockdown reading habits, Kenny and Earls are noticing the same trends — lots of fiction and lots of children’s books, with a smattering of poetry, self-help and gardening books. “There definitely has been a few changes from the norm,” Kenny explains.

Woman with headphones reading in living room © David Oxberry Woman with headphones reading in living room We’re getting orders for regular children’s books and then also educational children’s books. There’s been a bit more of those. So, you know, teaching your kid at home or learning language, that kind of thing.

“Generally, I would say probably more fiction than anything else,” says Earls, although we have been also shifting a fair bit of poetry and essays.” “Only the reading brave people are still interested in reading about politics at the moment.”

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