NFA Column: Bookselling in lockdown at The Grove Bookshop, Ilkley  

To describe the last twelve months as challenging is a bit of an understatement, and the whole industry has been forced to face up to massive changes in the way we do things. The problems caused by lockdowns and their aftermaths have proved too much for many businesses, and as we near the end of what’s promised to be the last full COVID-related closure, we can reflect on what we’ve faced and on how bookshops, publishers and suppliers have had to react in order to survive.

Back in March 2020, we at the Grove Bookshop saw a sudden increase in panic buying as the people of Ilkley became more and more aware of the inevitable forthcoming lockdown. Daily sales reached Christmas proportions as we struggled to keep our staff and customers safe, and it was almost a relief when the announcement finally came.

At the same time as dealing with a book-buying frenzy, we were working behind the scenes to try and set up a sales facility on our website. Sadly, time ran out and, after a week of selling remotely (mainly from my kitchen table via phone and email), we decided to close the shop and furlough our staff for the time being. This meant that Ilkley was without a bookshop for more than two months, and we had to try and maintain a presence without actually selling anything.

Every visit to the supermarket brought encouragement from customers, wishing us well and looking forward to seeing us open again, and we tried to keep people informed through as many channels as possible. Our Twitter, Facebook and Instagram accounts were really useful, and we carried on doing window displays to cheer up the shopfront. Local podcaster Andrea Hardaker got in touch and we set up a weekly book discussion podcast which was much appreciated by customers, and we were also invited onto the popular Days Podcast for an enjoyable chat about Roald Dahl. Email newsletters were sent out regularly, with bonus material courtesy of various publishers (Thanks in particular to Phaidon!).

Furlough took care of one set of expenses, but we were grateful to our publishers and wholesalers who gave us extended credit and returns allowances to see us through the Spring. Then came June, and our long-awaited re-opening, but it was a very different shop by then. Screens, sanitiser stations, much more space and a limit on customer numbers all added to the unusual atmosphere, but customers were back, books were being sold and, during the lockdown period, we had launched our bookselling website, which worked as a back-up for now.

Business was brisk, but we still faced challenges – not all staff had come back from furlough, so the team was smaller and we tried to work in two separate teams to keep everyone safe. Things ticked over but we approached October with trepidation as our major source of income, the Ilkley Literature Festival, had shrunk, out of necessity, from a 200-event 17 day marathon to a weekend of streamed talks. Post-event signings were no longer viable, but we were at least able to sell online at point of reservation. Then, just as we braced ourselves for the Christmas rush, November arrived with a further lockdown. This time we were far better prepared, using our website and the new to maintain steady sales, and once the doors opened again at the start of December we hit our stride and enjoyed a frenetic, distanced sales bonanza which left everyone pretty drained, so much so that the third lockdown in January gave us a chance to regroup.

Our business has learned a lot from the pandemic. Safety of staff and customers is more of a priority, and we are very grateful to publishers for their support, their understanding and their determination to keep bringing out new books during lockdown, giving us something to promote and also to look forward to. More than anything, though, the past year has shown us how much our shop means to the local community, and how much local independent businesses are valued. When the chips are down, people will band together to save what they value, and we approach the light of April with renewed strength, hope and determination.

Mike Sansbury has been a bookseller for 23 years, first with Waterstones and then Union Books at Leeds University, with a year at Oxford University Press in there somewhere, before coming to The Grove in 2010, first as Assistant Manager and then Manager. Grove Bookshop opened in 1979 and since 2001 we have been official bookseller at the Ilkley Literature Festival.