Business as (Un)usual: Bookselling under lockdown

Melbourne's booksellers keep our City of Literature afloat. On cold winter evenings – or sweaty summer nights, if you can remember those – they race down to the Wheeler Centre (or wherever we're hosting an event), pushing trollies piled high with boxes of books for our eager audiences. They wait for hours in the foyer (sometimes sneaking in to stand and listen at the back of the room). They patiently handle long queues of people desperate to get books signed by their favourite authors. They call in favours to get last minute titles, swap with each other and support each other.

Now, our city's bookshops need our support. 

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve heard of booksellers riding bikes and delivering parcels by hand; others have taken to Twitter and other platforms to provide personalised book recommendations. They've gone to great lengths to continue getting books to people, providing windows into other worlds, places to escape to and ways to process our unusually challenging times. 

With those things in mind, we caught up with some Melbourne booksellers to see how they’ve adapted to selling – and staying connected – to customers under COVID-19 restrictions.

Photo of Leesa Lambert, bookseller at The Little Bookroom

Leesa Lambert of The Little Bookroom — Photo: Meghan Lawson/Piccolo Angelo Photography

Neighbourhood Books, Northcote

Neighbourhood Books is an independent bookstore curated to nourish the local community. Based in Northcote, Neighbourhood Books houses a range of new fiction, non-fiction and children's books, prioritising local writers, artists and publishers. Their knowledgeable and friendly staff are eager to talk books and share recommendations with all who will listen. 

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic? 

We've created an online recommendation where, based on the reader's recent faves and current mood, we email three suggestions to help them through lockdown. We've created weekly 'Lockdown Lit' sessions to support local authors whose books are publishing in these difficult times, and give us a chance to get together and stay connected (even if it is on Zoom). We also have a nifty blog called Neighbourhood Natter, to share recommendations and our bestsellers!

How has your store adjusted to the challenge of delivering books to readers?

Our home delivery service has been warmly embraced, and is still growing. We also post or courier all orders over $60 free, to the entire country. Our online store is updated every day, to keep it fresh and interesting. And we're loving our chats on the socials; we even reactivated our Twitter account!

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying?

People are embracing fiction, especially new books by local women. And there has been a surge in sales of books about anti-racism, and fiction and non-fiction by First Nations authors.

Photo of Neighbourhood Books' non-fiction table

Neighborhood Books non-fiction table — Photo: Meghan Lawson/Piccolo Angelo Photography

Readings, Melbourne

Readings is an independent retailer of books, music and film, with seven shops operating in Melbourne at Carlton, Doncaster, Hawthorn, Malvern, St Kilda and the State Library Victoria – as well as a speciality children’s and young adult bookshop, also in Carlton. They run a lively website, where you can get the latest news on their blog, and listen to their podcast. Their shops have long been at the centre of the local literary scene, both as meeting places and via an exciting calendar of events, which showcases a range of in-conversations, panels, author signings, special in-store performances and book launches throughout the year.

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic? 

Our busy in-store events programme has been quickly and creatively turned entirely online, and we're now running 3–4 events on Zoom every week. This has allowed us to continue to support authors and publishers, keep our community engaged online, and bring a little bit of the Readings events magic into the lounge rooms of our customers. You can see our calendar of upcoming events here, and some of our highlight events are available to watch on Facebook here and others are available to listen to on our podcast here. 

Our social media channels and enews have become vitally important in 2020, and we've continued to make sure we're doing everything we can to inform, amuse and engage our followers every day across Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, and twice weekly in our emails.

How has your store adjusted to the challenge of delivering books to readers?

With all seven of our shops shut at various points during lockdown, our website has become a lifeline for sales. Our web fulfilment staff have been working tirelessly around the clock to make sure we're still getting books into the hands of readers, through the mail, couriers and sometimes hand-delivering books to our customer's homes. Our shop staff have been manning the phones, and figuring out the logistics of kerbside sales and now contactless pick-up in Stage Four, so that we can continue to offer as many different ways to buy a book from us, as safely as possible.

Photo of a hand holding a shopping bag out into an empty footpath, beneath the Readings Books sign

Photo: supplied

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying?

We've seen a big appetite for Australian fiction, with popular titles including The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams, The Yield by Tara June Winch, A Room Made of Leaves by Kate Grenville, Kokomo by Victoria Hannan and A Lonely Girl Is A Dangerous Thing by Jessie Tu. In non-fiction, inspiring or uplifting titles are sought-after, with Julia Baird's Phosphorescence a runaway bestseller for us. We're seeing a lot of interest in The Happiest Man on Earth by Eddie Jaku. And there has also been a huge boom in puzzles and cookbooks like Beatrix Bakes, as people turn to at-home activities.

Photo of a masked bookseller holding copies of 'The Yield' by Tara June Winch

A masked bookseller at Readings Carlton — Photo: supplied


The Sun Bookshop, Yarraville

The Sun Bookshop shares its frontage with the iconic Sun Theatre, and is categorised by the unmistakeable aroma of popcorn that floats amongst its shelves. For a small shop, The Sun carries a wide range of titles and gorgeous editions from classic and contemporary literature to self-help, art and architecture titles. Half a block down the street, its sibling – The Younger Sun – specialises in children's books. 

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic? 

To stay connected with our customers, we've restarted our adult bookclubs over Zoom. We have not done any virtual events or launches – however we have used our social media for both shops to try to get out as many of our recommendations as we can.

We've turned our window into a browsing opportunity. We have worked hard at keeping the window up to date with a lot more books than we would usually have in it.  We have sent newsletters to our subscribers to keep people up to date with what we're doing, and what's on – especially in The Younger Sun. And we've had a few Instagram competitions, so people can win a book. 

How has your store adjusted to the challenge of delivering books to readers?

Very early on we decided to start bicycle deliveries to locals who bought through our website; since then, we've purchased a small (cheap) car to be able to deliver further afield. We are running to the post office every day with parcels. Our phones are manned Tuesday to Saturday now, to give recommendations and help. We try to respond very quickly to all email, phone and social media requests. And we've finally instituted digital gift vouchers, which we've talked about for ages. 

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying? 

We have of course sold quite a lot of activity books and children's book series, lots of new releases and prize winners. Cookbooks, of course. We do notice that our social media helps sell titles. Hooray for all those great customers buying books from us. 

 

The Little Bookroom, Carlton North

The Little Bookroom opened its doors to the public in 1960, when Albert Ullin decided to focus his love for contemporary children's literature and illustration into an Australian first: a bookshop devoted solely to children's books. The Little Bookroom now operates a thriving shop and events space in Carlton North, bringing authors, illustrators, publishers and readers together in a welcoming, respectful, inclusive community space. Their events schedule is also growing as demand for child friendly bookish activity grows in Melbourne, a UNESCO City of Literature.

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic?

We've created an online recommendation quiz, where we ask parents or kids to answer a few questions and then we email three suggested titles through. It's fun, and works! Our phone runs hot, so we're still having wonderful conversations connecting books and readers. And we now have a Little Bookroom YouTube channel with a library of silly storytimes. We're running weekly Saturday sessions with authors and illustrators on Zoom, and have a school holidays series on the way too.

Nothing can stop Book Club, either! We have nine groups meeting once a month this term. And still hosting the occasional virtual book launch too! Of course, we're spending more time on the socials than ever before, and aim to send out two helpful newsletters a week. 

How has your store adjusted to the challenge of delivering books to readers?

It's been a mighty challenge, alright! But we haven't lost a single day of trading! We swiftly upgraded our online store, which we constantly update, and called in reinforcements enabling us to home deliver books to folk in the inner north! We reckon it's the fastest delivery service in lockdown town! 

We've also launched our Seasonal Subscription service for Australian picture books. We select three exceptional new releases and send them out quarterly. In partnership with Yarra Libraries, we've run a Pay it Forward programme, where we ask folk to chip in $10 (we contribute an extra 20%) to purchase books to be distributed along with other essentials to people facing food insecurity.

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying?

At first, we noticed a worrying drop in picture book purchasing, but that seems to have corrected itself now. Junior, middle and YA fiction are stronger than ever, and our community have been massively supportive of new local titles and stories by First Nations writers and people of colour.

Photo of staff at The Little Bookroom, standing 1.5 metres apart, in front of high stacked shelves

The Little Bookroom masketeers — Photo: Meghan Lawson/Piccolo Angelo Photography

Dymocks, Camberwell

Dymocks Camberwell is a family-operated store, running for over 20 years, and a part of the local community – known for their friendly, knowledgeable staff, great personalised recommendations, large children's section and 'hard to find' book search service. They run many author events, and often have a selection of autographed books for sale. They also have a book club, the 'First Tuesday Book Club', which runs each month (except November and January).

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic?

Mainly Facebook/Instagram, with head office also doing emails to our Booklover loyalty customers. At first we did an online book club, but sadly with so few staff, it was too much work to continue with – although we would love to do another one when we get a chance.

How has your store adjusted to the challenge of delivering books to readers?

We are offering free delivery to our local area, plus we use a variety of couriers. We have always been able to arrange courier/post, but the current free delivery option is unique to lockdown.

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying?

People seem to have gone back to classics or ones they feel familiar with, possibly due to less browsing and more word of mouth? We personally have been reading familiar authors or even re-reading books, as it's easier during times of stress.  

  

Paperback Bookshop, Melbourne

The Paperback Bookshop is an independent, general bookshop that was established in the early 1960s at the top of Bourke street. The original charter of the shop was to stock paperback editions of books that were not commonly available in Australia. They still stock such books, many of which have become classics – but their interest is in good writing, wherever it's to be found. The store has a particular focus on Australian writing and source new as well as established authors. 

How have you engaged with, or stayed connected to, customers during the pandemic?

We've done a major re-think of our social media. We gave this less emphasis pre-COVID, because we're normally so focussed on in-store, personalised engagement with our customers. We've tried to replicate this personalised engagement in our virtual interactions, through daily book recommendations on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, virtual browsing of our shelves, tailored reading lists on our website (including guest reading lists from our favourite customers!), and lots of exchanges and interactions on social and other media. We had to postpone our Salon Series of author events, but instead we created a YouTube channel for author and guest book readings and discussions.

Have you noticed any patterns in how, and what, people are reading or buying?​

There have been fascinating patterns in peoples' reading habits. In general, people are stocking up on books. They are paying very close attention to our recommendations on social media and our website; about 30% of our sales come from our recommendations. In addition, readers are delving into backlists of their favourite authors, they are going back to classics, they are reading the books they always wanted to but never got around to  and at the same time, they're also paying close attention to new releases and 'books of the moment'.

Portrait of Mia-Francesca McAuslan

Mia-Francesca McAuslan is the Wheeler Centre's Events Manager.

Mia is an writer, editor and arts worker from Far North Queensland. She holds a Master of Arts Management and a Bachelor of Creative Writing from RMIT University. She has previously worked as the Operations Manager for the Emerging Writers’ Festival, Editorial Intern at the Lifted Brow, and produced multi-disciplinary arts events as Co-Founder of Lor Journal.

She writes fiction, non-fiction and poetry. Her writing has been recognised via the Richell Prize by Hachette Australia, the Overland VU Short Story Prize, and has appeared in the Lifted Brow DigitalRabbit Poetry JournalWriters Bloc and others.

Discussion

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