A Retail Reality Check: Our Bookstores and What’s ‘Essential’

From Publishing Perspectives:

As the worldwide coronavirus emergency deepens into life-and-death gravity for so many in the world, a situation in the United Kingdom has reflected a concern that may play out in many other world markets for books.

At this writing The New York Times‘ tallies show Earth to have more than 341,500 people sickened by the virus and at least 15,187 dead with COVID-19. The Johns Hopkins Resource Center database, for comparison, shows 351,731 cases and 15,374 deaths. Sadly, by the time you read this, those numbers will have made more of their relentless jumps: more illness, more loss of life, more risk and exhaustion for medical and other responders; more economic devastation; more fear and confusion.

And while the people of publishing are right in understanding that the genius of literature has much to offer a world in such radical peril, we all—including those of us who cover the business as journalists—can do well to remember that no book is worth a human life and no blessing of publishing is worth endangering its people. Romantic notions of books’ importance are no match for life and health.

On the other hand, we can be sure that no one who had a hand in the outcry that came to a head this weekend in the UK got up one morning determined to make some questionable decisions about employee and consumer safety. We all need to put aside any kneejerk tendency to look for blame so that we can confirm what’s important: protecting people from the dangers of the contagion.

. . . .

Publishing everywhere is having to adjust, along with the rest of society and business, to a fortunately rare and lethal context. And there are times when this industry’s allegiance to many traditions and rich experience may, in fact, not always inform it well.

. . . .

And the concern in this case led to Sunday’s (March 22) late-day announcements by the UK’s Waterstones and Blackwell’s. Both bookstore chains announced that they are closing their physical points of sale temporarily amid the coronavirus crisis.

. . . .

Josh Halliday at The Guardian reported on Sunday that closing Waterstones’ 280 UK branches came after extensive employee complaint about how “senior head office staff, including Daunt, were working from home while booksellers, often those earning the least, were required to go into stores.”

. . . .

By Sunday, the Retail Gazette‘s Elias Johnson was reporting a fast-lengthening list of store chains that were closing across the UK amid the outbreak, including IKEA, John Lewis, the H&M Group, Selfridges, Harrods, Michael Kors, Gap, Lego, Abercrombie & Fitch, Apple, Calvin Klein, and more. But not bookstores.

Tweets have made it clear that some of the Waterstones workforce and customers indeed were concerned and spoke of it being unsafe to keep the bookstores open.

. . . .

Some commentary posted apparently by the Waterstones leadership has referred to the value of books in troubled times: “We all know that books provide solace, inspiration, education, and the other mental supports to periods of isolation, and the fact of our exceptionally busy sales over the last week demonstrates this is recognized by our customers.”

But of course, today’s strong television and film production, like music and other art forms, can provide sustenance, as well, and—like books, games, puzzles, and other valuable products in bookstores—these can be bought and sold online and by phone without risking physical commerce.

While many of us might argue that the intellectual and emotional support of good storytelling and informative nonfiction are important, books are not the only source of such aid and they’re not in the same class as food sold at grocers and medicines provided by pharmacies.

It’s a good moment for people who rightly prize the value of their industry to get a grip on what genuinely is essential.

You can’t live without food and certain medicines. You can live without books.

. . . .

As primeval a threat as the virus seems, maybe it’s time for story lovers to gather around digital fireplaces and start telling each other tales.

Link to the rest at Publishing Perspectives

While most regulars on TPV will already know this, the “Daunt” mentioned in the OP is James Daunt, the CEO of Waterstones book stores in the UK and the anointed savior of Barnes & Noble in the US.

PG wonders about Mr. Daunt’s business judgment in forcing Watersone’s store employees to keep working while he was not in his office and, apparently, had chosen to work from the safety of his home.

Regarding Barnes & Noble, the company seems to have fired its PR staff since Daunt’s appointment. PG was able to find one recent news item, however.

From Retail Touchpoints:

Barnes & Noble has disclosed plans for a potential layoff strategy as the retailer prepares for pandemic-related store closures, according to an internal memo seen by VICE. Staff at affected locations will first be able to use their time off, with employees who have been with the company for at least a year eligible for “up to” two weeks of pay. Employees with less than six months of time will be temporarily laid off upon the closing of the store.

“With the closure of stores, we are obliged to make the hardest of choices,” said James Daunt, CEO of Barnes & Noble in the memo. “The truth is that we cannot close our doors and continue to pay our employees in the manner of Apple, Nike, Patagonia and REI. They can do this because they have the resources necessary; we, and most retailers of our sort, do not.”

In a separate note, Daunt predicted that the crisis could cause an “unprecedented” sales drop, and that the company would likely need to “cut costs” to “weather this storm.” However, Daunt also stated that he would rehire workers after the stores are permitted to reopen to preserve their jobs — though he did not specify a timeline for the reopenings.

“No one knows by how much our sales will decline, nor for how long,” said Daunt in the second note. “We do know, however, that the drop will be unprecedented and that we must assume this will be measured over a period of many weeks, and possibly of months.”

Link to the rest at Retail Touchpoints

PG suspects that anyone who has been laid off from Barnes & Noble will be looking almost anywhere else for a new job and a great many Barnes & Noble people won’t be available when/if the stores reopen.

4 thoughts on “A Retail Reality Check: Our Bookstores and What’s ‘Essential’”

  1. Amazon is hiring.
    100,000. Their mimimum is $15 per hour, plus $2 extra during the pandemic.
    Walmart, 150,000.
    Target, too.
    Supermarkets almost certainly.

    A lot of people are learning the value of online shopping for essentials.

      • Actually, the expansion of Target and Walmart into groceries might prove to be, just by luck, one of the best things these stores did for themselves. Because they sell groceries they can stay open and sell everything they normally sell, even books and toys. Other retailers with a subset of stock like Bed Bath & Beyond, or general department stores, are screwed right now.

        It’s the same with restaurants. In my neighborhood, Chipotle is doing brisk take-out business, but the nicer sit-down mexican just a few doors away is shuttered.

        • Not necessarily.
          Around here WalMart has closed off non-grocery/non-pharmacy sections with yellow tape. For them non-essential means non-essential.
          Not sure if it is local policy or corporate.

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