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Delivery by skateboard? Coronavirus sees indie booksellers get inventive | Books

The booksellers at Burley Fisher Books in Haggerston are expecting their bikes to get a lot of use over the coming weeks. On Friday, they encouraged anyone self-isolating and in need of a new book to tell them the last book they read and enjoyed. If the customer was intrigued by their suggestion, they could buy it online and the booksellers would hand deliver it to anywhere in the London borough of Hackney. They were not anticipating more than 1,000 retweets and hundreds of requests for recommendations.

“Lots of people were saying they’d just read Girl, Woman, Other, so we were recommending Nudibranch by Irenosen Okojie for that. It was mostly fiction – people will be looking for big stories when they’re self-isolating, things to take them out of the home they can’t leave,” said co-owner Sam Fisher. “It was difficult to know the etiquette when delivering – should we knock on the door, leave it on the doorstep? But it was nice to be bringing the shop out into the community and we’ve got a lot of support. If it keeps up, we’ll all be very fit.”

Burley Fisher Books will be closing for two weeks from Tuesday, so online transactions and deliveries will become a lifeline. It’s not the only independent bookshop making tough decisions now; faced with ferocious competition from the likes of Amazon, rising rents and dwindling high streets, most indies operate on a shoe string anyway. The thought of weeks of coronavirus-forced closure is terrifying for small bookshops across the UK. “But we think it’s the responsible thing to do,” said Fisher.

Central London indie Goldsboro Books announced its closure until at least 31 March on Monday morning, while Glasgow’s independent LGBTQIA+ bookshop Category Is Books has closed its physical store, but is still offering local deliveries by skateboard and bike. The shop also has a “pay-it-forward shelf”, where customers can pay for a book for a stranger in the future.

Charlotte from Category Is Bookshop in Glasgow out delivering by skateboard with her dog.

‘Our spirits are still high’ … Charlotte from Category Is Bookshop in Glasgow out delivering by skateboard with their dog Molly. Photograph: Category Is Bookshop

“Lots of people asking for things that are ‘upbeat’, so we’ve been lots of recommending young adult books as they are a bit lighter to read, such as Out of Salem by Hal Schieve, or anthologies of short stories if people are having a tricky time focusing,” said co-owner Fionn Duffy-Scott. “We’re a disability household anyway and we’re are quite used to adjusting life and work around health, so in that sense our spirits are still high. The main concern is making sure we can keep the supply of books coming in. If the couriers stop operating, then we’ll need to get creative with our thinking.”

Kate McCloskey only opened her Okehampton shop, Dogberry & Finch Books, in August. She hasn’t closed yet, but is anticipating shops will be asked to shut. She is planning to offer discounts for locals on low incomes, as well as getting together volunteers to take deliveries to outlying villages – books as well as children’s activities, because “keeping kids entertained if we go into lockdown will be quite a challenge for a lot of families”.

The Barrister in Wonderland in Retford, North Nottinghamshire, is not only offering staff recommendations over the phone, but also “a simple chat if anyone is isolating and feeling lonely,” says owner Helen Tamblyn-Saville. The shop is also planning to stream storytime sessions over Facebook Live, and recently held a fundraiser to buy books for the local food bank: “With this crisis upon us, this feels like a timely thing to have done and we hope to have the books ordered and donated this week, in the hope that they will offer some small comfort.”

Emma Corfield-Walters at Book-ish in Crickhowell is predicting her shop is “going to take a hit this week”. She’s been “tweeting like my life depends on it”, and has received a small flurry of orders online as a result: “It’s nothing to keep us in business, but it goes a little way to make up the shortfall over the last week … We’re recommending a lot of Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, as it’s really thick and will last seven days. And The Mercies by Kiran Millwood-Hargrave, which is complete escapism.” She’s also delivering books on her bike to locals who can’t get out, as well as planning to offer takeaway meals from the shop’s cafe.

‘We’ve had a big increase in people ordering via our website and over the phone, which has been great.’ Staff at The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh holding books to be hand-delivered.

‘We’ve had a big increase in people ordering via our website and over the phone, which has been great’ … Staff at The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh holding books to be hand-delivered. Photograph: Jack Clark

At The Portobello Bookshop in Edinburgh, Jack Clark has been loading customer orders into brown paper bags to deliver them by bike and car this week to locals, and to post out to those who are further afield. They’ve also cancelled all upcoming events. “Almost no good will come out of this terrible situation, but one small positive for indie bookshops is that it seems to have made people aware that most of us can order any book in print for you via our website or over the phone,” he added. “Many bookshops have always offered this, but I think not everyone realised it was a possibility. We’ve had a big increase in people ordering via our website and over the phone, which has been great.”

Authors are keen to help out: crime writer Stuart Neville has rallied a group of Northern Irish and Irish authors, including Adrian McKinty and John Connolly, to chip in money to fund care packages of books to be sent by Belfast’s No Alibis bookstore to people facing isolation in the coming days. “I was aiming to fund 10 £25 packages, but we wound up with enough to pay for 50!” said Neville, adding: “The authors I contacted all jumped at the chance to do something to benefit both the bookstore and those readers facing isolation, even though many of those authors themselves are entering a period of great uncertainty.”

Meryl Halls of the Booksellers Association said they were “impressed and heartened by the creative way booksellers are coping with this unprecedented situation”.

“The need for social distancing runs counter to all the joys of bookshops in normal circumstances and it’s heartbreaking to see this crisis hit our creative bookselling sector this way,” she said, urging the public “to remember that their local high street bookshops are only a phone call or social media message away”.

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