Although the doors have often been closed to customers, Burway Books has remained open throughout the crisis, through a new online shop and the continuation of a first-rate telephone ordering system dating back decades. During those periods when customers have been allowed in, Burway Books has offered a well-ventilated, well-heated and well-ordered environment in which the shop’s long tradition of good service has been combined with a firm commitment to make Burway Books as physically safe a place as is presently possible. Customers have responded well, and many have personally thanked Ros, expressing their appreciation at the effort made on their behalf.
Ros established Burway Books a few months after the Three Day Week and as such resilience has always been a critical feature of her business model. How can an independent bookshop in a small town in Shropshire be resilient? Through awareness, through flexibility, and through community engagement.
At the beginning of March last year, with cases rising and the government still not acting, Ros took the difficult decision to close the shop to customers and to move to internet and telephone orders only until it was safe to re-open. This meant that when the government announced the first lockdown a week later, the shop was already operating under lockdown conditions and the difficult and stressful work involved in transferring the business to a mail-order-only one had already been completed.
Customers can now browse the entire shop’s stock online and order directly, or use the shop’s long- established telephone and email ordering system. Free delivery is offered to the local area – defined as a five-mile radius from the shop – and for the first few months of the first lockdown, free delivery was offered nationwide. When opportunities have emerged we have tried to make the most practical use of them: the government grant in the first lockdown, and the Booksellers’ Association counter screen grant was used to make the shop ‘Covid secure’, and our affiliation to bookshop.org has not only been useful but rather fun.
The physical shop has re-opened several times since the first lockdown, and has closed several times as well. We have gone to considerable efforts to make it as safe as possible: well as the usual masks, screens and copious supplies of hand-gel, we make sure that the shop is well-heated during the winter months, and that it is well-ventilated at all times. A routine exists whereby windows are opened whenever a customer has been browsing for more than ten minutes and are left permanently open during busy patches. We also have spare masks and offer them to customers who have forgotten their own.
Throughout the crisis, Burway Books has endeavoured to be proactive rather than reactive and to place the community at the heart of its response. A significant proportion of our customers are elderly and have been shielding, and for many our telephone ordering system functions as an effective weapon against this isolation and loneliness: the conversations that used to be held in front of the shop’s counter now frequently occur via telephone. Children have not been forgotten: we have donated Children’s books to local foodbanks, and for those times when the shop can be open, all of our substantial stock of Children’s books are located in a dedicated area at the front of the shop.
Little things can matter in bleak times, and Ros, Hilary, and Gwen have created elaborate, informative and, above all, jolly window-displays. These are changed on a frequent basis, usually multiple times each week. ‘Community’ however, does not just mean that of Church Stretton and environs, but a wider ‘community of readers’ across the entire country, and we have made an effort to reach out through social media – in particular Twitter and Instagram – with some success. In December Ros was invited to participate in The Observer ‘The Best Books of 2020 Chosen by Booksellers’’; the response to Ros’s article was excellent, with long-term Church Stretton customers expressing delight at ‘their’ shop being noticed in the national press, and with a clear increase in sales from new customers from across the country searching for an independent book supplier.
This has been an immensely difficult and stressful year for all independent bookshops – indeed, for all people – and Burway Books has been as tested as much as any other bookshop. We believe that our resilience in the face of this crisis demonstrates the importance of a community ethos: of the idea that a bookshop is not merely a business that sells books, but an amenity; a space – and it turns out that this space does not have to be physical! – that also deals in solace, enlightenment, entertainment and even friendship. The independent bookshop is an institution and, as the response of our community to our efforts has shown, a valued one.