Commentary: Bookstores should be listed as ‘essential service’

Along with escape and entertainment, parents need books to continue their children’s studies at home.

By Alex George / The Washington Post

Eighteen months ago, my business partner and I opened an independent bookshop in Columbia, Missouri. The first few years of any business are always difficult, especially in retail, and especially in the book industry, where margins are notoriously thin and your greatest competitor is the corporate incarnation of the Death Star. (Jeff Bezos, the chief executive of our book-selling rival Amazon, owns The Washington Post.) Despite all this, Skylark Bookshop has been thriving. We’re fortunate to be in a town of wonderful readers — having three universities helps — who like to support locally owned businesses. We’re working hard, having a huge amount of fun and making good progress.

Or rather, we were. Last week, Columbia, like so many cities across America — and more and more states — issued orders designed to limit the spread of the coronavirus in our community. Among other things, all businesses that were not deemed to be “essential” were mandated to close. Even before the order came down, we’d canceled all author events and voluntarily shut our doors to the public to keep both our staff and our customers safe; although we continued to let customers pick up books curbside. We followed the directives of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention meticulously: We kept six feet apart, washed hands assiduously, and wiped down surfaces on a regular basis. But now we have been informed that, because we are not “essential,” such curbside sales must end (though we can still mail out books). Faced with similar restrictions, many bookstores across the country have shut down completely. It may only be a matter of time before we are forced to do the same.

The order issued by my city contains 42 different categories of business that are essential; enterprises permitted to stay open include pharmacies, restaurants, hardware stores, dry cleaners; but bookshops are not on the list. North Carolina exempts bookstores “that sell educational material” (don’t all of us do that?). And in some places, stores — Riverstone Books, in Pittsburgh, is one example — have asked for and received individual exemptions from shutdown orders. But the general judgment of politicians has been that bookstores fall into the nonessential category.

But bookshops should absolutely be deemed essential. Now more than ever, access to books is critical to our collective mental health. As our customers endure the pandemic — and as many shelter in place — readers are finding solace, relief, entertainment, information, stimulation and escape inside the covers of books. We know this from the phone calls and emails that we receive each day. Some customers seek specific titles; others are sending us photos of their bookshelves and asking for recommendations. (We’re suggesting Ross Gay’s gorgeous collection of micro-essays, “The Book of Delights,” a lot at the moment.) We’ve seen a surge in requests for workbooks for children as parents struggle to home-school their children. And people are asking for big books; literally. With all this time on their hands, nobody is worried about a 784-page door-stopper such as Hilary Mantel’s new novel, “The Mirror and the Light,” set during Henry VIII’s reign.

What is considered “essential” will always vary from community to community; and can be idiosyncratic. Belgium, for instance, has deemed that kiosks that sell french fries are critical to the country’s survival, and so these remain open when many other businesses have been forced to close. But the argument for bookshops is universal. There’s a famous line in Neil Gaiman’s novel “American Gods”: “What I say is, a town isn’t a town without a bookstore. It may call itself a town, but unless it’s got a bookstore, it knows it’s not foolin’ a soul.” Every community needs books, and people crave them now especially.

I fully understand and support the efforts of cities and states to limit the spread of this terrible virus. But the system as it stands gives rise to peculiar results. People are able to pick up drinks to go from the coffee shop next door to us, walking into the store to get them, but they are not allowed to pick up books at our address even if they remain outside. Both transactions can be handled with the same degree of safety, but we are obliged to mail or hand-deliver our products to our customers’ homes.

Setting aside the massive harm it does to local businesses, online book-buying is not a good option for consumers, either: Amazon has deprioritized the delivery of books to focus on other, more in-demand items, so readers may struggle to get the books they need. And that delivery method is far from risk-free: Workers at several Amazon facilities have tested positive for the coronavirus.

The poet and novelist Ocean Vuong recently described booksellers as “mapmakers of possibility.” A bookshop is a world of infinite futures. Every book promises a different path forward, and booksellers are there to help you navigate your way. Booksellers listen, and we guide. We put the right book into the right hands. This is a service we perform with joy. We perform it with gratitude and the utmost care. We can perform it, we’ve learned, even when our customers can’t browse our shelves. We can perform it safely.

The work we do is, in short, essential. All we ask is that we be permitted to do it, at a time when it is needed most.

Alex George is the founder and director of the Unbound Book Festival and the owner of Skylark Bookshop in Columbia, Missouri.

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