Chris Redfern, who owns the three Avenue shops, said last weekend had been their best since Christmas. “That’s a positive side in dark times. We had a tough January and February and the whole retail sector has been doing it tough in the post-Christmas period.”
But he expected a severe drop in “foot traffic” this weekend. “I anticipate we will be closed for a period,” he said. With 30 staff, wages and rent to pay, he said, “the future of my business is in doubt”.
Redfern is one of many bookshop owners who have introduced a personal delivery service in their immediate catchment area in an attempt to compensate for an expected drop in customer visits. “My new role as a bookseller is as a driver. But deliveries are just a gentle way of softening the blow and helping customers. It won’t save us.”
Ray Bonner of Bookoccino in Sydney’s Avalon Beach agreed that deliveries were worth doing. But he said it was the halt to author events that had most hurt his book and coffee shop.
“Events are big for us. Even before this you needed something besides books and for us it has been events.” He conceded that while his business offered online sales, they would not be sufficient to support the business if it were forced to shut. “We can’t compete with Amazon or Booktopia.”
But he stressed that Bookoccino was not about to close its doors. “Business people will say give me clarity and certainty, but no one knows what’s happening. That’s what make things scarier for people.” A point echoed by Natalie Yabuka, manager of Oscar and Friends, who said everybody wanted clarity, but government was learning along with everybody else.
Business at Anna Low’s Potts Point Bookshop is 99 per cent direct customer purchases and she has never positioned the shop for online sales. While she had not worked out contingency plans in the event of closure, she reckoned she would be able to survive for three to six months if she drew down on her mortgage.
The cancellation of Sydney Writers’ Festival had been “a huge blow” to festival bookseller Gleebooks, according to co-owner David Gaunt. And he said he was worried about business from schools.
“We have made a decision to stay open as long as we’re told we can stay open. But there is no conceivable way of replacing income we’d lose by online sales,” he said. “Everyone says you just have to wait and see. We would feel it immediately if we were forced to close. There’s no fat.
“One of the hardest things is how quickly businesses are making decisions without being in full possession of the facts. People don’t know. Should our shop staff be wearing masks?”
Mark Rubbo, managing director of Readings’ seven shops in Melbourne, lamented the end of his extensive events program that was soon to feature Patti Smith and Malcolm Turnbull, and said he was talking to staff, landlords and suppliers about the future. “Every business is vulnerable. We have reserves and can last a while [in the event of having to close].”
His flagship shop in Carlton was the only one that had a people counter and he said the first couple of days of this week were 40 per cent down on the previous week. “But,” he added, “most people are buying more.”
In France, Economy Minister Bruno Le Maire wants bookshops added to the list of essential services allowed to stay open during the French lockdown. But it was the British writer David Almond who captured the importance of bookshops most succinctly: “A good bookshop,” he said, “is not just about selling books from shelves, but reaching out into the world and making a difference.”
Let’s hope they still can in these new and troubled times.
Jason Steger is Books Editor at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald