For the first time in its 500 year (sort of) history the Frankfurt Book Fair, the largest book fair worldwide, has been held digitally this October. In accordance with an unprecedented situation, this has been new territory for organizers, publishing traders, and the general public alike. 200,000 people worldwide attended online events - comparably less than the physical attendance of roughly 300,000 per year over the last couple of years. Nevertheless, Juergen Boos, president of the Frankfurt Book Fair, is according to the newspaper NWZ online convinced that in a time of a global pandemic “…the book is alive".
However, how about flipping this premise on its head? Are books necessary for our survival? Are the companies that produce them, the shops that sell them, and the services that ship them – using the already established Covid-19 lingo – essential industries? In short: Is the book market essential to society? This question arose in very interesting ways throughout the last couple of months. Different countries came to different conclusions at different times.
The book market has always been a special kind of business. On it, goods are sold that are unique in that their value is twofold: materialistically it increases while undergoing the publishing process, through production techniques, materials used and hours spent working on texting and editing; idealistically, an individual reader defines it - which renders it objectively immeasurable. And like retail in general, online business has been a game-changer for the bookselling industry. Many suspected it would eventually move mainly if not entirely online, surviving only in large chains whilst leaving its most genuine representative – the independent bookshop – out in the cold. However, in an interconnected world bookselling through online portals is a bit like online dating while going to an independent bookstore to pick out your books or even have them recommended by an actual person rather than online ratings is like falling in love with someone you meet in the real world (which apparently still happens, too). Yes, online dating seems convenient and can work but wouldn’t you rather meet someone on the train to somewhere, or, indeed, in a bookstore? The process is more organic, there is more time for second looks. It is true, that this analogy has also been affected by Covid-19. Social-distancing has made online dating all the more appealing and many places are currently experiencing a second lockdown. However, as Will Atkinson of Atlantic Books cheekily puts it in the online UK Market Insight talk for this year’s Frankfurt Bookfair, independent bookstore owners "really have discovered there’s an internet this year ." And not just a few have managed to literally save the romance in the process by creating a hybrid that still somehow transports the magic of the bookstore shopping experience to their customers.
In Rostock, Germany, Manfred Keiper, owner of the bookshop “andere Buchhandlung” organized volunteer courriers who were currently unable to work in their primary jobs to transport books through the city to those who had ordered them. He was overwhelmed by his community’s demand and support during the first lockdown. Dozens of courier routes per day were no exception for his volunteers. And the biggest reward was the happiness of those who met them at the doorstep. Thus they were constantly reminded that their job was making people happy. In an uncertain time, this was a touching reward for everyone involved. Keiper was lucky too: he had chosen the right distributor combination which allowed for him to have little to no delay in deliveries. His team was able to deliver to peoples’ doorstep within two days of a placed order. Moreover, Germany’s biggest book wholesalers KNV and Libri initially had planned to half distribution but then continued with their usual delivery schedule as they saw how well independent bookshops had adapted to the “new normal“. With Amazon dismissing books in the early days of lockdown as low priority shipping goods and big bookstore chains having gone into lockdown sooner, independent bookstores suddenly found themselves at an unprecedented advantage. Turning it into an actual opportunity that could keep business afloat meant mobilizing many forces – including Mr. Keiper’s own as he worked around the clock. Nevertheless, what kept them going was not least the public acknowledgment of their societal importance by the German government. Monika Grütters, German Commissioner for Culture and Media, pushed for bookstores to be among the first businesses allowed to reopen. This has given many a great boost in confidence. Keiper hopes that in the longterm, it will also facilitate systemic changes that will result in higher rewards for cultural work in general.
Worldwide, booksellers have different stories to tell. At least some of them resemble the one from “andere Buchhandlung". Yet there is no doubt, independent booksellers around the world need your continued support. They are human sellers of goods that reflect like no other our common humanity and connect us across borders.
If you still need reasons for supporting your local bookstore, here are four essential ones:
1. Staying connected with your community by supporting local small businesses:
Independent bookstores are – independent, but often the heart and soul of a town, a city or even a village – going there, buying from them you are not only ensuring that these shops can stay in business but you are also strengthening personal bonds with people in your community that enhance your overall living experience through a feeling of being connected locally.
2. Supporting Empathy, Warmth, Calm, Concentration, Coziness:
By supporting your local independent bookstore you are contributing to maintaining a place of conviviality, inspiration and warmth. There is a reason why people associate coffee, tea and hot chocolate, woolen cardigans, reading glasses, and slow living with independent bookstores and their owners. While these are clichés it is true, that an independent bookstore’s unique selling point is often its owner. Booksellers can be fascinating, knowledgable people. Supporting independent bookstores therefore also means supporting independent characters who are ready to spread their knowledge also in the time of a pandemic. Look up their websites, they can be reached by email, social media, phone or even through their letterbox – in many cases their distributors ensure that you might have a book you order today as quickly as tomorrow. They are looking to give you the experience of being present with you in the moment during these times and beyond whenever you would like to find the perfect next read.
3. Supporting Education, Culture, and Diversity - visibly:
Books educate and inspire critical thinking – if you buy from your local bookshop you support education, culture and diversity not only by purchasing a potentially educational item but also by maintaining spaces that represent these societal values visibly by letting them take up space and shaping the face of a city, town or village.
4. Touch a Book - Keeping the Romance alive:
The romantic atmosphere of a bookstore has itself inspired many stories. It is a wondrous thing made from a mix of dreams, ideas and possibilities in the form of stories and nonfiction waiting to be discovered by readers. In the end, however, it all comes down to hapticity, to touch. That is the most concrete way in which in a global pandemic the romance of a bookstore can be extended to your home. As poet and literary agent Isobel Dixon aptly puts it in the Frankfurt Market Insights UK talk: „We’re all tired of screens.“ She elaborates that a book can create an intimate, comforting private space to escape into when sharing a confined space with other people as is the case for many during lockdown . However, the same goes for the many people who are spending their lockdown alone and are overall experiencing losses and loneliness during this time – reading a printed book, holding it, having it palpably in your hands, witnessing your progress as you move on through the pages can counteract loneliness and depression which is often defined by a lack of contact and more precisely: touch. Having your book delivered by a friendly book courier from your local book shop or going for a walk to pick it up from there can sprinkle a bit of romantic magic onto a lonely heart, too.
While these are many arguments in favour of bookstores, especially independent ones, being essential businesses, it is you, their customers, their readers, that must answer the question of whether or not they are. The answer is reached not by your words but by your actions, primarily by purchasing from them rather than elsewhere.
How have the bookstores within your vicinity handled lockdown/ the pandemic so far? Please share their stories in the comments and leave their details for support. Then go and connect with them and get yourself a nice book to read. Stay connected and inspired and keep the magic alive as we progress into winter.
 For further information on this year’s online edition of Frankfurt Book Fair https://www.buchmesse.de