Bookstores Should Be an Essential Service

Books offer education, escape, and mental support in a tough time.

Heywood Hill bookshop
Inside the Heywood Hill bookshop, London.

K Martinko

As France enters a strict four-week lockdown in order to stave off a dangerous second wave of coronavirus, its independent booksellers have requested the status of an essential service. A statement issued jointly by a publishers' association, booksellers' association, and authors' group wants bookshops to be listed alongside supermarkets and pharmacies as necessary to human wellbeing.

They write that the appetite for literature has been "extraordinary" in recent months, among young and old. "Books satisfy our need for understanding, reflection, escape, distraction, but also sharing and communication, even in isolation." They plead with the French government to "leave our bookstores open, so that social confinement is not also cultural isolation."

Bookstores have already established protocols that allow for shopping to occur in a safe, hygienic manner. They want curbside pickup to be allowed to continue, especially as we enter the final two months of the year, which are normally responsible for more than a quarter of annual sales.

Curious about how booksellers in the United States view this situation, Treehugger reached out to the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to learn how lockdown has affected independent bookstores here and whether American booksellers also view themselves as an essential service. 

CEO Allison Hill responded, saying that book sales have been up 6% in the U.S. since the pandemic began and that many people have been reminded of how important independent bookstores are to their communities and to their lives. She offered a number of heartwarming anecdotes as examples:

"Deep Vellum Books in Dallas started a hotline for customers to call to get book recommendations but also just to talk to another person in the early days of the shutdown. The owner of Tombolo Books in Florida personally delivers books on her bike to people who are sheltering in place or quarantined. She writes personal messages on the packages she leaves on their porches. I ordered something from Avid Bookshop in Athens, Georgia, and the owner Janet included stickers and a handwritten postcard and other goodies to 'sweeten' my purchase and add a personal touch to an online transaction."

While Hill admits that booksellers' work "in no way compares to the truly essential work that's been done [by health care workers] during the crisis," the role of bookstores and books should not be underestimated. Books have been important to many people this year for various reasons, including homeschooling, education, escape, emotional support, connection, and humanity. That is why "some stores in the U.S. in some communities were given essential status during shutdowns so that they could continue offering curbside service or fulfill online orders in ways that were safe for their staff and their communities."

ABA Boxed Out campaign photo
The ABA's #BoxedOut campaign takes over store windows in Washington, DC.

American Booksellers' Association (used with permission)

Despite this, independent booksellers are struggling across the U.S., as they are in France. (Famed bookseller Shakespeare & Co. issued a call for help earlier this week, saying sales are down 80% since March.) The ABA has launched a campaign called #BoxedOut, asking people to skip the online ordering and support local indie bookstores. Hill said in a press release that one bookshop has closed per week since COVID-19 started; she told Treehugger that 20% are in danger of closing by January.

"[We need to] start an important conversation about the value of independent bookstores and the impact of their consumer choices on their communities; where we spend our dollars these final days of 2020 will determine the communities we find ourselves in, come 2021."

Bookstores might not be the first thing that comes to mind when we think about what's needed in a crisis, but they offer a level of mental stimulation that few other businesses can match – and our minds must be cared for in addition to our bodies. Books make us better equipped to handle the challenges thrown our way because they remind that others have faced tough times in the past, too, and there's nothing like a sense of solidarity to boost one's resilience.

For all the reasons Hill listed above – from homeschooling and education, to escape and connection (and so many more!) – books and their sellers deserve to be upheld as necessary in our society, whether that's by allowing them to operate safely during lockdown or prioritizing local sellers over online retailers. While France works its way through this latest shutdown, those of us on this side of the Atlantic can show support for independent booksellers by buying from them this holiday season.