Dan Slevin on the precarious but hopeful state of New Zealand bookshops.
When I started this job a lifetime ago (back in October last year), I told friends that I was going to work for the trade union for independent booksellers. I thought it conjured up a nice image for people but I didn’t realise that in less than six months my team and I would be providing precisely that kind of personalised support and advocacy on behalf of our members.
In the past week, we’ve intervened with bullying landlords (although only a tiny minority have been unsupportive), helped booksellers who don’t draw wages for themselves to apply for the self-employed subsidy, and brought members who don’t have online stores together with members who do to learn how to add new strings to their bow while they’re in this enforced hiatus.
This is what we are trying to focus on – being prepared for the lockdown to ease (because eventually it must), encouraging members to use this time to communicate with customers and to think about how they might lead their communities back out into the world when we all get to leave our homes again for something other than walking the dogs.
Many booksellers are already central to their communities and are finding ways to transfer that connection to the online world. The day before the lockdown, Paper Plus in Pahiatua hand-delivered its entire stock of magazines randomly into local letterboxes and happy recipients have been posting the results of the recipes they received to their Facebook page. Wardini’s in Hawkes Bay has staged fun “pukapuka charades” on Facebook. Paper Plus in Hawera is doing daily challenges and has a leaderboard with households taking part – there are Paper Plus vouchers as prizes for the top three.
Right now, booksellers are cautiously optimistic. Many were doing very good business in the days leading up to the lockdown and expect to take advantage of the pent-up demand for books when the restrictions ease. When we surveyed members last week, everyone who responded thought that with the support of government, landlords, banks and publishers, they would survive the four weeks at Level 4. Longer than that and the calculations become much more difficult.
One member told us, “I am concerned about the viability of the business but trying to remain positive.” Others are cancelling or reducing orders for April, May and June: “We shall be reducing our book and magazine purchases to reflect the lower sales. Although we should reduce staff, we have all agreed we shall instead each reduce our working hours.”
When we asked what else the government could be doing, one suggestion was for no GST to be remitted to IRD for the first few months after the lockdown is removed, “so retailers can get back on their feet.”
Others took a larger view, arguing this crisis is an opportunity to remove some of the systematic inequality between the international corporate booksellers and the local indies: “Big corporates who don’t pay their fair share of tax, should. And their workers should have bonus structures linked to profitability, as execs do. Free freight should be banned, it does not show the real cost (i.e. environmental) and independent retail, cafés and restaurants are everything that gives a city its individual character.”
Independent booksellers in New Zealand come in all shapes and sizes – from behemoths like Unity on Willis Street to tiny regional owner-operators like The Twizel bookshop. Estimates of losses from the lockdown vary just as widely – from $1000 to over $60,000. Two-thirds of our members didn’t feel the Government support was sufficient, a view I’m sure is shared by small business owners across the country.
Nobody from our membership has yet asked us to lobby the Government for books to be considered an essential service but we hear murmurings on social media about perceived inequities, especially when knitting yarn can get the all-important MBIE seal of approval. The longer the lockdown goes on – and especially if it lasts longer than the initial four weeks – we will see more booksellers wanting to feed their local booklovers’ addictions either in person or online. But I don’t like to single booksellers out in terms of how tough it is. In fact, I like to say that if you went outside and threw a paper dart (two metres at least) and hit another person, chances are they are having a tougher time than you are.
At Booksellers NZ, we’ve launched our #BookshopsWillBeBack campaign to remind book lovers, book buyers, the book industry and the rest of New Zealand that independent bookshops are the nationwide backbone of the sector, with unparalleled skills at putting the right book in the right hands at the right time. This human-to-human capacity is going to be vital as we rebuild after all this unpleasantness and our bookseller members want to assure readers that we are doing everything in our power to be there for them when they need us. We’re also going to be giving away $12,000 of book tokens over the next few weeks to juice some anticipation for all the great reading to come.
When I was given this job, one of my targets was to increase membership and this week we’ve actually done that, as a couple of lapsed members have come back into the fold. My small team and I will continue to do everything we can to ensure that when this lousy war is over, we will have exactly the same number of independent bookshops in New Zealand as we have now.