Bookstores are still in dire shape, with the pandemic causing store closures all over. WH Smith in the UK reports that sales were down 25% in March, and in the first week of April they were down 85% over the same period in 2019. They predict similar losses through the end of August, then hope for “gradual improvement in trading through to the end of December.” About 60% of their stores are closed. Their competitor Waterstones has closed all their stores in the UK.
James Daunt, head of both Waterstones and Barnes & Noble, wrote to staff at the end of March about their “truly dreadful week…. You will know that most of our stores are closed to the public and it seems likely that the few that remain open may shortly be required also to close.” Barnes & Noble has closed over 500 locations and furloughed “a large number” of staff. Daunt expressed confidence in their long-term future, however, and stopped drawing a salary at the end of February as a gesture toward laid-off employees. James Killen, the longtime science fiction and fantasy buyer for Barnes & Noble, has been furloughed.
Workers protested outside a Barnes & Noble distribution center in Monroe NJ in April to demand protections from COVID-19 after five cases were confirmed among the staff or their families. The warehouse employs about 800 people. Protestors asked for a paid two-week closure for “full sanitization,” hazard pay, better protections, and the right to “self-quarantine and refuse to work without retaliation.” The company says “we have been working with employees… to keep everyone safe during this difficult time,” and claims they have “changed our manner of operating, above all to ensure social distancing,” among other measures. A similar protest was held at an Amazon warehouse in Staten Island.
Amazon is focused on shipping food and household supplies above other items, but they are prioritizing some books that customers “most need and want,” notably “children’s books and educational titles.”
Canadian chain Indigo Books has closed its stores for the foreseeable future and in March laid off over 5,000 retail employees (out of a total 7,000 employees company-wide). Employees were paid during the initial closure from March 17-28. The company said it hopes “to re-embrace as many as possible when this period of store closure is over.” In April, they announced the rehiring of 545 “salaried retail leadership employees,” funded by the “recently announced Canadian Emergency Wage Subsidy,” which will repay employers 75% of employee salaries for up to 12 weeks. Online sales are robust, showing “triple-digit growth.”
The Strand Bookstore in New York has reportedly laid off 188 members of its 230-person staff, with owner Nancy Bass saying, “In order to preserve The Strand as a business, with no revenue coming in and no clear idea as to when we can reopen our doors, we have had to temporarily lay off the majority of our staff.”
Things are improving a bit at Powell’s in Portland OR, with owner Emily Powell rehiring almost 50 laid-off union workers to handle a surge in online orders. Another 50 or so non-union managers are also working. The store laid off 85% of its 400 employees in March. The store is not paying vendors for now: “Our focus is on keeping Powell’s moving, keeping our community healthy, taking care of our wonderful customers, and having as many folks working with health insurance as our sales can support.”
[Edited to change W.H. Smith to Waterstones per comment.]
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James Daunt is head of Waterstones in the UK not W.H.Smith.