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North independent bookshops reopen this week with post-lockdown measures – and welcome back customers

By Margaret Chrystall

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ACROSS the North this week, the sound of bookshop doors swinging open for business makes the perfect first chapter for a post-lockdown life. Well, almost.

Though much has yet to be settled before the new normal becomes anything like the old normal – such as the reopening of entertainment venues, restaurants and pubs, for one – the chance for independent bookshops to reopen will have been a big milestone.

Bill Marshall – husband of owner Marjory – in The Bookmark in Grantown at the weekend making final reopening preparations.
Bill Marshall – husband of owner Marjory – in The Bookmark in Grantown at the weekend making final reopening preparations.

Many reopened on Monday and Tuesday this week – Logie Steading outside Forres will open from Thursday. It’s definitely a big moment for the region’s readers, who haven’t been able to browse in a bookshop since late March.

Though most of the independent bookshops contacted this week have their own rules about browsing, alongside providing hand sanitiser, limiting customer numbers in their shops, having face covering requests, sometimes gloves and other measures to keep both staff and customers safe, they are all enthusiastic about being back.

Logie Steading Bookshop.
Logie Steading Bookshop.

“It’s day one, so we’ll see how it goes,” said Ullapool Bookshop manager Katharine Douglas on Tuesday. “We’ve had steady numbers and we rely on local support and have had great support from customers coming in today. And people are pleased to see the shop open.”

The shop will open five days a week at the moment – usually it would be seven days and in the evenings in summer. And many of the places opening this week will also start with reduced hours.

Ullapool Bookshop had over 100 people visit during last year's Christmas Lights event.
Ullapool Bookshop had over 100 people visit during last year's Christmas Lights event.

On June 15, when bookshops reopened in England, record sums were made as the footfall returned, sales contributing to June becoming the biggest trading month for books since 2003 levels when the business was more buoyant.

Last week at the first digital version of the XpoNorth Festival, Hachette publisher Lisa Highton, talked about witnessing that flood of book love for herself.

“I went to my first bookshop since the reopening which was a giddy experience. It was astonishing to be back in a place that sold books and it was like a hand reaching through the lockdown fog to say ‘This can be life again’ – and how vital bookshops are to our culture and our publishing industry.

“A bookshop is a place and an important pillar of how we communicate and connect and certainly the sales from that first week were astonishing, as the bookshops opened and people celebrated.”

Nairn Bookshop.
Nairn Bookshop.

Mavis Macdonald at Nairn Bookshop devised an ingenious way that people could pick up ordered books and in a way that was also safe for those shielding. She set up a table between her outer storm doors and the shop door where people could find their books when they had arrived.

The Bookmark in Grantown was one of the places that continued to try to get books out to its readers during lockdown.

Owner Marjory Marshall said: “We were shipping books and providing local service throughout the lockdown, through orders on Twitter and Facebook and email – and even notes through the door.

“And the Post Office provided excellent service as we were sending as far afield as London, Cheshire and Skye as other closed book shops in the Highlands were referring customers to us.

“Overall, it wasn’t a perfect situation – but we made the most of it to keep the bills paid and people supplied with books!”

Katharine Douglas at Ullapool Bookshop agreed.

“It has been very hard to be closed. But it was unavoidable to keep our small community safe and well.”

And like Mavis Macdonald in Nairn Bookshop, Katharine paid tribute to the support received from The Booksellers Association.

“I can’t thank them enough for their information and support,” she said.

Many of the businesses used the downtime to make improvements.

Marjory at the Bookmark said: “We’ve been working hard to make the environment more customer-friendly.”

Last year's Ullapool Bookshop event with poet Stephen Keeler.
Last year's Ullapool Bookshop event with poet Stephen Keeler.

And there may be a wait before author and other events can return to the bookshops.

Katharine at Ullapool Bookshop – whose events last year included one with top Scottish crime writer Val McDermid, locally-based poet Stephen Keeler and the busy Christmas event pictured in our article – would love to see events returning.

"There's not anything at the moment till we see how the season goes. We would have to go with Government guidelines.

Scottish crime writer Val McDermid visited Ullapool Bookshop last year.
Scottish crime writer Val McDermid visited Ullapool Bookshop last year.

"We have some ideas of events we wanted to do with a couple of authors in the autumn with book launches, and also with Christmas. These are things I would hope in an ideal world – we would love to be able to do!

"But we are going to have to be bound by what we are allowed to do and where we do it because our bookshop is a relatively small space. When we have had an event before, we have certainly had a lot of people in a small space. So we might need to be doing it a bit differently.

"We had hoped to have a couple of author events for new books coming out in October and November. And in the past we have had an event when the Ullapool Christmas lights have been switched on and the whole village has been open for Christmas shopping.

"We have been doing poetry readings a couple of times and other authors too.

"We have started a short story competition called the Ullapool Word 500, called the W500 and I hoped that we might invite some of the people who have submitted entries to that to speak at an event. But again, we might have to do that slightly differently depending on what the advice is.

"If the events don’t happen this autumn, they will happen later.

"With the Christmas event last year, we have never had so many people in the shop. It was well over 100 people, so it would be great to do something, but realistically, who knows?”

Picaresque Books in Dingwall can arrange personal browsing times.
Picaresque Books in Dingwall can arrange personal browsing times.

Like some of the other businesses, David Duguid at Dingwall’s Picaresque bookshop and gallery, received a small shop rates grant and has used some of the time behind closed doors to build a new website.

Katharine at Ullapool Bookshop felt making things work better was one of the opportunities lockdown had offered.

“It’s vital we look at doing things in a new way ie making more use of our online website, more use of social media to show people our stock, and taking more telephone and email orders.”

The "very literary Sprocker" Gus with reader Annie at Logie Steading Bookshop.
The "very literary Sprocker" Gus with reader Annie at Logie Steading Bookshop.

But there are lots of things North readers might say their favourite go-to bookshops have been doing right.

Pictures of bright windows packed with frequently-changed book selections have been attracting customers to Facebook pages and Twitter feeds – and readers have been heading there in search of the usual tips from their trusted booksellers as to the latest titles to search out.

In Ullapool Bookshop, it’s a local book that has been the most requested over lockdown – On The Yachts by Robbie Mackenzie and James MacGregor, telling the story of the lives of Lochbroom seamen from 1850-1880.

A whole variety, many timely and topical, at The Bookmark, have included – Peter May’s Lockdown with the uncannily accurate portrait of life in a pandemic that took it to number four in the hardback mass fiction chart. There were titles the whole world has been asking for, such as Delia Owens’ Where The Crawdads Sing – also popular with readers at the Nairn Bookshop.

But readers also craved the number one feelgood picture book by Charlie Mackesy, The Boy The Mole The Fox And The Horse, also titles by children’s favourite, Julia Donaldson.

“One young man read his way through the 16-book cherub series from Robert Muchamore and received a personal tweet for his book review,” said Marjory Marshall.

And the North’s taste for crime fiction was reflected at Nairn Bookshop where readers were picking up Denzil Meyrick’s new one, Jeremiah’s Bell, as well as Why I’m No Longer Talking To White People About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge, tapping into the world’s hunger to understand more in the wake of George Floyd’s death in America.

Inside Picaresque Books which also contains Galerie Fantoosh.
Inside Picaresque Books which also contains Galerie Fantoosh.

In Dingwall’s Picaresque – which mixes new books with specialist and second-hand books – perhaps it’s dreamed-of journeys from stuck-at-home lockdown that have inspired their most requested titles – featuring the NC500.

Like some of the other businesses, owner David received a small shop rates grant which has helped pay the bills and he has been improving things. He has used time being closed to build a new website. And as well as all the measures such as distancing, asking people to wear face masks and having only three in the shop at a time, he is popping books touched by browsing customers into quarantine for three days.

He is also offering people the chance to book the shop for an hour from 9am or 4pm to have the luxury of browsing on their own.

“In case people are wary,” he said.

Bill Anderson at Highflight Bookshop in Dingwall.
Bill Anderson at Highflight Bookshop in Dingwall.

Bill Anderson’s Highflight Bookshop across the High Street from Picaresque has a similar service.

Bill, who specialises in books on aviation and second-hand books, said: "If people want to phone, I can arrange a private visit. I opened on Monday and things were quite quiet, but I'm not sure if people realise we are open and alive and kicking!"

Like Mavis Macdonald at the Nairn Bookshop, David agreed that having customers return now, is crucial.

New books are often more expensive for him to buy in than you an get them on Amazon or in Tesco, he says.

"It's why I tend to have more specialist books. And I need that and the gallery we have here – everything to survive!"

Mavis puts it bluntly: “Being closed has meant loss of revenue, and that’s it in a nutshell. A lot comes from footfall and particularly at this time of year when things usually pick up and we have tourists arriving.

“We need people to come to the shop or we won’t survive. I have gone for my usual opening hours – Monday to Saturday, 10am-1pm, then 1.30pm to 4.30pm, so only slightly shortened hours. That allows us to clean and get PPE sorted and have a little breathing space.

“But I decided if you are opening, you are opening.”

“It’s been difficult to be closed, and it’s hard to serve the customers when it is not possible for them to browse,” Marjory said. “We are looking forward to seeing our readers back as I am a handseller and talk books, so it becomes an intimate thing which can't be replicated online.

“We ask for the community to be patient as we all work through this together, but everyone is welcome back!"

The North’s independent bookshops, many reopening this week, include – community bookshop The Orb, Huntly; The Bookmark, Grantown; Yeadons, Elgin; Logie Steading, outside Forres; Nairn Bookshop; Charles Leakey, Inverness; Highflight, Dingwall; Picaresque, Dingwall; Dornoch Bookshop; Ullapool Bookshop; the Ceilidh Place Bookshop, Ullapool. The three North branches of Waterstones are in Inverness, Elgin and Aviemore. Aviemore is open now, the others are likely to open on July 13 or 14. But government advice for the opening of indoor shopping centres – like the Eastgate where Waterstones Inverness is and St Giles where the Elgin branch is – is due to be updated on Thursday, July 9. Also, check with all the individual bookshops for their current opening hours before setting out.

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