As London bookstores reopen, eager readers return

Matthew Nsubuga, right, and other customers check out titles in BookMongers of Brixton, a used-book store, in London, June 15, 2020. Charming neighbourhood shops and slick chain outlets in London welcomed back customers, who snatched up titles as eclectic as the city itself. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)
Just after 10am Monday, Cathy Slater, the owner of Dulwich Books, stood waiting to welcome her first customers into the store in months.

Bookstores in England were allowed to open their premises Monday for the first time since the country went into lockdown in March. Slater said she was overjoyed to be back and had prepared especially: There was a vase of flowers on a table by the entrance, and a huge bottle of hand sanitiser on the counter.

The first customer wasn’t what she had hoped for. About 20 minutes after opening, a man stuck his head around the front door, and shouted, “Do you sell Post-it Notes?”

But at 10:30am, Helen Boome arrived and headed straight to the children’s section. “Is it OK to touch?” she asked. After getting the all-clear, she grabbed a book about Greek myths for her son.

Within minutes, Olivia Holmes walked in wearing a face mask. She was looking for “The Redeemed,” by Tim Pears, the final part of a trilogy set during World War I. Then another customer arrived, and a fourth loitered at the door: A sign in the window said, “Maximum of three people in the shop.”

The atmosphere was vibrant, if a little constrained. It was a vibe that echoed at five other booksellers in the capital.

Bookmongers of Brixton

On Monday morning, Patrick Kelly, owner of the used-book store Bookmongers of Brixton, sat behind a see-through plastic screen, looking at his store's heaving shelves. He was worried about the future, he said, because the neighbourhood had gentrified so much over the past decade and he’d become reliant on “tourists and day-trippers” to get by. “We can reopen today, but when we see a tourist again is anybody’s guess,” he said.

But soon, a trickle of customers started buying. Paulo Sousa, 40, bought a medical textbook, though he said he didn’t actually want to read it; he was going to cut a shape in its pages and hide a present for his brother inside.

At the back of the store, Matthew Nsubuga, 28, was staring intently at a shelf of science fiction books called SF Masterworks, with vivid yellow spines. “I’ve been waiting for the shop to reopen, as I knew they had a lot,” he said.

Nsubuga said he’d been reading science fiction during the lockdown — including “Dune” by Frank Herbert — and that books had “helped me survive.”

“Reading kept my mind off all of the other issues in the world,” he added. He left the store with six books costing 27 pounds (about $34) in total.

Kelly smiled. “This has been fantastic,” he said, sounding surprised at the quick sales. “The doom and gloom is going a little.”

Waterstones, Kensington

In May, Waterstones, Britain’s largest book chain, with over 280 stores, announced a new safety measure for reopening. Any book that a customer touched but didn’t buy would be put away for 72 hours to cut the infection risk.

At midday Monday, staffers at the bright and spacious High Street Kensington branch were putting the policy into practice, having placed about 30 books — including several by Jean-Paul Sartre, the author of “Nausea” — onto a cart that would be wheeled into isolation.

Many staff members wore plastic face shields, but none of the half-dozen or so customers seemed to mind.

“I’ve been missing bookshops more than anything else,” said Jeremy Smith, 54, a charity administrator who was clutching a notebook containing the titles of dozens of books he wanted to buy. He’d already found one: Angie Cruz’s “Dominicana,” about an 11-year-old child forced into marriage.

Word on the Water, King’s Cross

Word on the Water, a bookstore on a boat moored on a canal near the railway station King’s Cross, sneaked in an early opening June 1. By shutting its doors and only trading from shelves on the barge’s exterior, it had been able to classify itself as an outdoor market, a type of business that opened in an earlier lockdown easing.

James Bentley, 56, a bookseller there, said Monday that sales June 1 had been phenomenal, as regular customers dropped by. But now the business was relying on passers-by.

On Monday afternoon, several people stopped to buy books, largely grabbing novels, including one by Portuguese writer José Saramago, a Nobel laureate.

Lauren Gibbs, 34, said she had been cycling past and had stopped to make a video with her cellphone to capture the Edith Piaf song playing from the barge. Then she decided she should really buy something, she said. She picked out “Jazz Poems,” an anthology featuring works by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks.

Pages of Hackney

Jo Heygate, manager of Pages of Hackney, stood behind the counter, looking out at an empty shop floor, and said she had decided to stay closed to browsers for now. That was partly because her store is tiny, she said: To comply with Britain’s social-distancing rules, which require people to stay about 6 feet apart, she could only have admitted one customer at a time.

But it was also because her store had, somehow, made a success of the lockdown, she added. At first, the staff had panicked, thinking they wouldn’t sell anything at all. But around a month in, Pages of Hackney began an online store — something Heygate said the business probably should have done years earlier. “I sold two books about transgender resistance in half an hour of the store going up,” she said. “Those would normally have taken a month to sell.”

She attributed the success to the shop’s loyal local customer base, as well as how interested people were to read books on issues about race at the moment, a subject the store had always pushed. Layla F. Saad’s “Me and White Supremacy” was a big seller, Heygate said; so was Jeffrey Boakye’s “Black, Listed.”

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