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Melbourne During Coronavirus: a bookseller's perspective

Katie O'Donnell
Tue 2 Jun, 2020

What's it been like on the other hemisphere during lockdown?

Kate O'Donnell is a bookseller in Melbourne -the Australian UNESCO City of Literature. She was supposed to be visiting Nottingham to take up a residency this year, but when Coronavirus scuppered that plan she instead wrote us this insightful, heartfelt and at times hilarious article:

I’m a bookseller at the Sun Bookshop and its specialist children’s bookshop The Younger Sun, just across the ‘pop-up park’ from the main shop. Our bookshops are in Yarraville, an inner suburb of Melbourne, just sixteen minutes by train from the CBD. Yarraville’s basically a village, if Australia could have a village. If you live here, you can go weeks without stepping outside its boundaries. Cafes, and restaurants. Clothing, shoe, glasses stores. An Art Deco cinema that presides over it all, with a neon sun shining into the sky.

In early March, as more cases of COVID-19 appeared in Australia, we first used hand sanitiser after every cash transaction. Then it was after any particularly sneezy customer. Soon after that, it was in between every customer. We began to ritually wipe down the computers, the doorknobs, the counters. I threw out the ‘Maisy House’ from the toy table, and after that relegated the whole table, toy box, and the books we put out to distract chomping, rip-happy toddlers to the back room.

We’d launched an online store just before Christmas and, with self-isolation and the possibility of quarantine restrictions looming, it suddenly felt (and was) more important than ever. As the possibility of Australian restrictions began to loom on the horizon, we began offering free local delivery and procured a yellow bicycle in order to get books to our loyal customers.

Then we closed the doors - and this was the moment we pivoted so hard we got whiplash.

“this was the moment we pivoted so hard we got whiplash.”

For those hired recently, and those of us with second jobs (and hence other incomes), we were stood down by a devastated bookshop owner. The overnight job loss and uncertainty was, and is, and always will be, the hardest part of life during coronavirus, and not just for booksellers.

Publishers spent a couple of weeks in a flurry moving publishing dates and delaying titles, shooting out emails that we didn’t have time to read. I think now we’re pretty sure what’s going to be published between today and the end of the year (maybe?). I feel so sad for the March and April new-release books, which were too late to stop coming out, and so many of which have fallen through the cracks in spite of speedy online campaigns, book launches on YouTube! and Zoom! and Instagram Live! Those first weeks were a wild ride of highs and lows and constant Instagramming of only positive and helpful things.

In the first weeks of coronavirus, our village was a ghost town. The cinema was literally boarded up. One café has stayed open for takeaways and each coffee feels like a lifeline to a normal time.

Normal life in the Sun Bookshop and the Younger Sun is greeting regular customers, recommending your best new read, running events and book launches and book clubs, having passionate conversations about books and politics and pop culture. Our daily mini-stocktake. Unpacking, pricing, and putting out books. Shelving, and re-shelving, and an extreme commitment to #bookfacefriday. Our shop takes a healthy, daily dose of irreverent fun – one day I’ll tell you all about the mystery shrimp discovered in the back room – and we are a community of people who are all something else as well as booksellers: actors, artists, poets, mums, psychology students, and lawyers-in-waiting.

A day as a bookseller in the time of COVID-19 looks more like repetitive processing web orders that have come in overnight, discovering that our system said we had one copy of Dune but that actually was shoplifted or had otherwise disappeared unnoticed. So you’d call the customer, help them choose something else, sometimes issue a refund (always disappointing). In the first weeks we found ourselves inundated with orders and learning a new way of working was hard. The work is different now, and it’s much less interesting. Even though we’re still just getting books into the hands of readers, which has forever been the job description, it’s more mechanical, or rote. Working retail can be a grind sometimes, but this has been a good exercise in realising how dynamic, intellectually stimulating and outright fun it is compared to so many other jobs out there.

The unique challenges of being a children’s bookseller during COVID-19 have been surprising. Whereas before, we were in personal demand – each customer who came through the door had questions and specific requests, whether that be ‘I only like books with one illustration per page and the illustrations have to be in two colours and if the characters are animals not humans that would be best’. Or there’s our one customer, Gracie, who only wants to read the saddest books. We know our books and we know our customers. As a team at the Younger Sun, we read as widely as we can and pool our knowledge.

But being a children’s specialist in these times is extra hard. Who knew that not being able to pull a book off the shelf and open it up for a customer would make such a difference? Our phone calls are very funny: ‘The text is about the size of my little nail … yes, exactly, about the size of the text in Billie B Brown.’ ‘There are 64 pages, but the book is short so it looks long…’ ‘There’s a small illustration on most pages, but a big one every so often.’ I worry that the books will arrive and they won’t be quite right for the readers – hadn’t realised the importance of judging a book by its internal spreads.

Deliveries suck. While I never romanticised the job of a courier, I now really do understand now why the delivery person might heave-ho a parcel over the fence. Especially towards the end of my delivery runs I find myself parking not illegally, exactly, but wherever is most convenient.

140217 5940 Yarravillle Books Low Res 3

The Sun Bookshop, ( photo credit:broadsheet.com.au/ )

Delivering books on bike and in the car, I’ve discovered streets and pockets of Melbourne’s inner west I’ve never seen before. A lot of the suburbs just outside of Yarraville are what real estate reality TV shows call ‘transitional’ – and doing deliveries we discovered our destination was nearly always the best house on a crappy street, prompting conversations about what I suppose we already knew but didn’t always acknowledge: that we were relying on those lucky few with disposable income; a reminder that books are a luxury for most.

But deliveries are wonderful too, and getting a peek into the home lives of customers we’ve known for years is strangely thrilling. I love the moment when I’ve scurried back to the footpath after dropping a parcel by the door and the customer and I wave at each other and we shout ‘Thank you!’ and the pleasure of our exchanges of gratitude is enough to be patient with a tricky gate, or a hard-to-find apartment entrance, and I have not yet once lobbed a parcel into a nearby bush.

Meanwhile, back in the shop we are overcaffeinated, hysterical, tired. ‘What are you reading?’ We ask each other. ‘Nothing, nothing, nothing.’ We are working hard to safeguard our shop, our jobs – and books.

We are so tired, but our deep gratitude for the community goes hand in hand with our exhaustion. We are thrown rudely into a new way of working – no longer just sellers of books, we’re cleaners* in disposable gloves sanitising doorknobs again and again. It’s monotonous, but it’s also combined incessant messaging back and forth with shop colleagues about new plans, ways to engage our audience. We adopt a kind of frantic positivity for social media. How can we get them to buy picture books? (No one is buying picture books.) Should we consider running online events? It is strangely invigorating.

Government support JobKeeper payments mean there’s more staff on, and we’re doing deep cleans and big reorganisation, and making plans for short term and long term. But orders have slowed down a bit, and the community is tired. People are feeling the strain of unemployment, or winter coming, or how hard it is to see the light at the end of the pandemic.

Though, as I write this, things are changing. The Victorian government has lifted restrictions a little. The ghost town is seeing movement, people too frustrated with the stay-home orders to stay home. They’re knocking on our door, sometimes even wandering in if we don’t stop them soon enough. We’re offering click-and-collect purchases for a few hours each day of week. We’re making plans to reopen.

I have so many fears for our future: our health, our economy, our government’s continual failure to support the arts. But there are still wonderful colleagues in our shop and beyond, and there are books upon books to look forward to in the second half of this year. And I can only imagine the crowd of delayed books in 2021 just waiting for us there in the new world.

*We were cleaners before, of course. Whenever anyone dreams wistfully of life as a bookseller I’ve always been quick to remind them it’s really just all hauling boxes and dusting ferociously.

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