More than any other type of store, bookstores hold a special place in society’s imagination. They are about so much more than the products they sell. As Vincent Van Gogh said, “So often, a visit to a bookshop has cheered me, and reminded me that there are good things in the world.” It’s this sentiment that has helped turn some of the world’s oldest bookstores into must-see destinations.
Take Portugal’s Livraria Lello, for example. It opened in the coastal town of Porto in 1906 with a striking Art Noveau façade and a charming split central staircase circling up to a second-floor gallery, lined with intricately carved wooden balusters. It is unlike any bookstore in the world.
“Livraria Lello is famous, and not only to book lovers,” said the store’s marketing and communications director, Andreia Ferreira. But fame wasn’t going to protect it from Covid.
On March 13, with the virus rapidly spreading across Europe, Livraria Lello closed its doors to the public for the first time in a century.
It wasn’t the only one. In Paris, the iconic Shakespeare and Company, which for decades, has been a home away from home for celebrated writers, authors and poets, closed for a period. So too did the more than 200-year-old Hatchards in London.
Of course, bookstores weren’t the only businesses to close during the pandemic, but their potential for survival has customers feeling particularly anxious.
“I was quite struck by the number of people, fans of the bookstore, former Tumbleweeds [people who have stayed overnight in the bookshop], who kept in touch and asked ‘Are you okay?’, ‘Is the bookshop going to be okay?’, ‘Is there anything we can do to help?’,” said Adam Biles, Shakespeare and Company’s events manager. “That feeling, that warmth, was one of the positive things that came out of it.”
Rest assured, this is not a story about the tragic end of some of the world’s most beloved bookstores. It’s a story of their survival.
Preserving an icon
After Livraria Lello closed its doors, the team quickly found a new way to keep customers stocked up on reading material.
“In April, we opened a drive-through, the first in a bookstore, and we offered hundreds of books selected by us every day to people in Porto, who signed up to collect them,” Ferreira said.
Staff also updated the shop’s social media pages regularly, giving followers news about the business and recommending books to those stuck in isolation. On May 30, the bookshop reopened with safety measures in place and a new online voucher system that allows customers to reserve a time to shop in-store.
“We follow all the safety rules recommended by the General Health Directorate,” Ferreira said. “We can have, at this moment, about 20 people inside the bookstore. It is mandatory to put on a mask and disinfect your hands at the entrance; we clean the spaces several times a day, and the books that our readers pick up but don’t take home are quarantined for 48 hours. Our staff wears a mask, visor and gloves.”
According to Ferreira, the shop is still getting about 400 to 500 visitors a day. With caps on store capacity, the queues outside are growing. “The long queues outside Livraria Lello are indicators of the resumption of life in the city,” she said.
And if that isn’t enough to put to rest any lingering concerns over Livraria Lello’s future, consider the fact that the bookstore bought another protected historical institution, the Teatro Sá da Bandeira, at the end of June for €3.5 million (US$3.5 million).
“[We] did it because we saw an opportunity where others saw a threat,” said Livraria Lello chairperson Dr Aurora Pedro Pinto.
“To bet on culture is to bet on us individuals and our society, our city and our country,” she said. “Culture is now even more important to our collective recovery as a city of heritage. Our culture must be open to those who live in it and to those who visit it.”
Moving with the times
The WHSmith Paris bookstore, which has been the city’s largest English bookshop since 1903, is no stranger to the importance of preservation.
The company purchased the building from the Neal Brothers, who had been using the space for a bookshop, a tearoom and library since 1870. Located on rue de Rivoli, near the Place de la Concorde, the Louvre and Jardin des Tuileries, the store’s façade looks much the same as it did a century ago, while the interior has been updated over the years.
“Being an old bookstore doesn’t necessarily mean looking obsolete or out of date,” WHSmith France’s general manager Patrick Moynot told Inside Retail.
These days, there are signs reminding customers about social distancing, face mask requirements and hand sanitiser stations around the store. Since it is technically a newsagent, the store wasn’t required to close during the two-month lockdown earlier this year, but Moynot says the business chose to do so for the safety of staff and customers. He’s even positive the store would survive a new set of restrictions if the city faced another Covid wave.
“Books may not be the most dynamic product you can imagine, but to a book lover, it’s a necessity,” he said. “This is a strong and resilient business.”
Bringing the bookstore to the people
Fans of another Parisian literary institution, the beloved new and used bookshop Shakespeare and Company, would likely agree with that statement.
The bookstore was opened by American ex-serviceman George Whitman in 1951. Originally named Le Mistral, the bookshop was renamed Shakespeare and Company in 1964 in tribute to the legendary bookseller Sylvia Beach’s store of the same name, which had operated in Paris from 1919 to 1940.
In its early years, there were beds tucked between the bookshelves, where aspiring writers could sleep for free in exchange for helping out around the store. It’s estimated that about 30,000 Tumbleweeds have slept over.
In 2004, Whitman’s daughter, Sylvia, who was named after Beach, took over the shop, and now she co-manages it with her partner, David Delannet. They opened an adjoining café in 2015, and have launched a literary festival, a contest for unpublished novellas and a publishing arm.
Like other bookstores, Shakespeare and Company shut its doors during the lockdown, leaving it unoccupied for the first time since it opened.
Fortunately, it was able to stay connected with customers around the world through its online store.
“There were people who couldn’t visit the bookstore, so we tried to get the bookstore to the people,” Biles explained. “We want people to support their local indie bookstore in their own community because those shops are suffering at this time as much as we are, but if they want a little bit of Paris, we can ship to them.”
The store started to reopen slowly a couple of months ago. There’s an online schedule for when visitors can visit the bookstore and the café, but author events are yet to resume.
Not going anywhere
London’s oldest bookshop, Hatchards, has been reminding its customers to put things in perspective.
When the British government imposed a lockdown to help stem the spread of the coronavirus in the United Kingdom, the bookstore posted the following statement on social media: “We may be in the worst of times, but in the wise words of Betty Smith, ‘The world is still ours for the reading’ and the books aren’t going anywhere.’”
Hatchards should know. After all, the business has existed for more than two centuries on Piccadilly, one of the most famous streets in the world. The bookstore was established in 1797 by John Hatchard, and a second location was opened in St. Pancras International train station in 2014.
Like Shakespeare and Company, Hatchards stepped up its online business during the lockdown. The company says its subscription service has been going “from strength to strength”, with more than 500 books being sent out each month. They’re also offering a same-day collection service where customers can place an order by phone or e-mail and pick the book up on their way home that evening.
Now that stores are open again, Hatchards has introduced new safety measures.
“We are maintaining the two-metre separation rule and regularly sanitising surfaces,” the book retailer stated. “There are frequent hand sanitising stations throughout the shop.”
If customers pick up a book but decide not to buy it, they leave it on a quarantine trolley, where it will be kept away from the shop floor until a safe time has elapsed.
“Everyone’s safety is our first priority,” the company said.
Not the end of the chapter
Some of the world’s oldest bookshops have survived the first round of Covid-induced store closures, but could they ride a second wave?
Leakey’s Bookshop, which opened in 1979 and is Scotland’s second-largest, is housed in a former 1793 Gaelic church and has more than 100,000 selected volumes inside its walls. The shop has been actively buying and selling books throughout the Highlands for more than 40 years.
Charles Leakey, the owner of the eponymous bookstore, has said businesses in his area haven’t yet felt the full brunt of the effects of the pandemic.
“It is still early days and many of the difficulties, if not horrors, lie ahead,” Leakey told Inside Retail. “I suspect that we will all have to hold on to our hats.”
Forming relationships with the community is essential for book retailers, Leakey said; a sentiment seconded by Sofie Willmott, the lead retail analyst at GlobalData.
“Consumers are likely to feel more of an allegiance to small independents where they may have built a relationship with the staff or owners and will assume large retailers will be able to cope with the drop in sales. The Covid-19 pandemic has reignited the importance of the local community for many,” she said.
According to Leakey, the pandemic is putting booksellers under unprecedented stress, but that retailers are very resilient and have proven they can pass the tests of time.
“Selling books, or anything really, is simple enough if you offer items that people want at a price they can afford, or better still, at a price they consider to be really good value,” he said.
“And besides, many book lovers would always consider books valuable, and there are plenty of them out there. This is not the end of a chapter for bookstores.”
His is a reassuringly practical view of things. But Livraria Lello’s Ferreira thinks there’s another reason bookstores are surviving the current crisis: “People are always looking for the opportunity to enjoy all the magic inside a bookshop… the magic inside Livraria Lello.”
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