Published On: Sat, May 30th, 2020

Coronavirus: Reading enjoys a lockdown renaissance – but small bookshops are still struggling | Ents & Arts News

Whether it is fiction, crime or the classics, reading is enjoying a renaissance in lockdown.

The world’s biggest book event, the Hay Festival, has surprised even its organisers after being forced to go digital – and proving to be more popular than ever.

It usually brings in around £30m to the small Welsh town of Hay-on-Wye, hosting around 200,000 during the 10-day event.

Hay Festival's live events feature an impressive cast
Hay Festival’s live events feature an impressive cast

The town had already forked out for tents, catering and all the paraphernalia required, so organisers had braced themselves for the worst when they had to cancel the event.

But festival director Peter Florence has, to his own amazement, played a blinder.

“In a good year we get 280,000 tickets, and so far we’ve had 512,000 registrations from 69 countries. We are astonished,” he told Sky News.

“What’s happened is that a new global audience has re-invented Hay, making something very special in the intimate and public sphere, so we’re slightly giddy about how exciting it is.”

While most of the entertainment sector has suffered as music festivals, concerts, theatre shows and film productions hang in the balance, no one could have predicted the festival’s digital success.

One of the festival’s live events boasts an all-star cast including Vanessa Redgrave, Stephen Fry, Margaret Atwood, Benedict Cumberbatch and Monty Don.

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“You’d never get them all in one space and here they are on this extraordinary platform,” adds Mr Florence.

Historian Simon Schama spoke at the Hay Festival Digital this week from the comfort of his own home and seems unsurprised that books are having a moment in lockdown.

“You are travelling essentially. Reading is a state of freedom – the freedom of the mind, the freedom of the imagination, and there is no better cure to feeling nailed to the spot than reading,” he said.

Waterstones has reported a 400% increase in online book sales week-on-week in lockdown, despite having closed its 280 branches.

Reading is a popular hobby during lockdown
Reading is a popular hobby during lockdown

But, as the book chain’s chief executive James Daunt explained on Sky News this week, a complicated path to reopening bookshops lies ahead.

“People will want to browse and pick up books… We’re just going to ask customers to put any books they don’t use on a trolley and we’ll wheel them away and quarantine them for 72 hours,” he said.

But quarantining books isn’t an option for the 890 independent books shops in the UK and Ireland who say they simply don’t have the storage space or stock available.

The Booksellers Association said that while 76% of bookshops continued to trade through the lockdown with online business, they have only seen 18% of the normal turnover – and only a third expect to reopen fully.

Hazel Broadfoot, the owner of Village Books in south London, says she has been forced to adapt during lockdown by selling online with locals picking up their purchases from the store and paying through the glass.

Bookshops like hers are desperate to get their customers back through the doors.

Local bookstores are facing difficulties during lockdown
Local bookstores are facing difficulties during lockdown

“We are considering whether to ask people to wear reusable gloves but we don’t want to add to the plastic problem,” Ms Broadfoot said.

“We have got to limit the number of people we have in this space. It’s tiny… Perspex screens at the till, hand sanitiser at the door, a queue outside.”

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