As Europe goes back into pandemic lockdown French bookstores are making the case to remain open, despite the fact bars and restaurants will be closing. Citing fears of increasing “cultural isolation” bookstore associations are joining with publishers to demand classification as essential alongside grocery stores and pharmacies, arguing that “Our readers, who love independent bookstores, would not understand it and would experience it as an injustice … books satisfy our need for understanding, reflection, escape, distraction, but also sharing and communication.”
Look, as anyone reading this likely knows, I am a fan of independent bookstores, and I think we need to do everything we can as a community of book-lovers to help them, along with the booksellers they employ, survive the inevitable hardships of this winter’s lockdown. But just because I love something doesn’t mean I don’t understand why I can’t do it. And by “do it” I mean slowly browse the shelves of my local indie, head aslant, taking in the accidental poetry of book titles in search of nothing in particular.
I do think it’s possible for stores to remain safely open to fulfill online orders but in order to do so employees must be able to travel to work. This, I think, is the crux of the problem in France: the lockdown there is going to require sworn declarations by individuals about why they’re leaving home; my French is pretty good but I can’t yet figure out if all non-essential businesses are closing entirely, or if traveling to nonessential work will b a valid reason to be out.
This issue came up in the US over the summer for many of the same reasons, as outlined in this Washington Post op-ed by bookstore owner Alex George, who pointed out that:
The order issued by my city contains 42 categories of business that are essential; enterprises permitted to stay open range from pharmacies to restaurants to hardware stores to dry cleaners — but bookshops are not on the list.
In this case, I think he has a point: if curbside pick-up is deemed safe enough to collect your crisp button-downs it can probably be safely implemented for book-buying.
As with most superficially argument-ready topics the question of bookstores as essential businesses comes down to situational specificity and broader context: Are they essential to a vibrant and healthy society? Yes. Can they safely stay open for delivery and curbside pick-up? Yes. But are they really essential during a pandemic to the kind of people who can, in normal times, regularly afford to go to a bookstore? Frankly, no.