Angry customers and empty stores – How the coronavirus affected bookstores

Second-hand bookshop Antiquariaat Isis in Groningen. Photograph: Julia Tar

We often hear that we should “buy local” and also that culture was affected by the pandemic. In this case, we usually think about theatres and film theatres. But there is a place, not immune to the disease either, that combines shopping and culture: the bookstore.

According to the Dutch paper NOS, during the corona crisis, the Dutch preferred reading to watching Netflix. However, physical bookstores did not benefit from this unless they also had an online store. Physical bookstores suffered a 24 percent loss which equals to 15 million euros but online sales grew by 33 percent.

The virus caused every place to make new rules and bookstores are no exceptions. “We have to close at 6pm and we can only have 18 customers inside at once,” says Kum van Bekkum, an employee at Van der Velde Boeken, a bookstore in Groningen, the Netherlands. “In the first few weeks of the virus this wasn’t a problem because there weren’t even 10 customers in the store,” he adds. Normally, you could get a coffee too at Van der Velde Boeken but because of the virus, this is not an option anymore.

Van der Velde Boeken was closed for only three days in March but not everyone decided to take a break at all during the pandemic. Antiquaritaat Isis, a second-hand bookshop in Groningen remained open. This bookshop could feel the lack of customers as well. “At the beginning of the virus there weren’t even people in the streets,” says Lyseth Belt, one of the owners.

We might think that having an online store as part of the shop helped bookshops during the lockdown. However, shipping worldwide did not go as smoothly as it usually does for Antiquaritaat Isis. Belt says that while the number of online orders didn’t change, parcels disappeared or often were as late as two weeks because several countries closed their borders. “We had a lot of angry customers,” she says.

Now things seem to be more or less back to how they were before. Van Bekkum says that they had almost as many customers as they did last year at the same time in April or May. Belt also says that lots of people visit her shop even to just browse again.

The fact that the number of online orders increased across the country and that it seems customers went back to bookstores as soon as it was possible, shows the need for these type of shops. Culture plays a big role in staying sane during a lockdown and besides films and TV shows, a good book is an obvious choice to get our daily dose.

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