I worried about reopening my bookshop, but it’s brought some much-needed joy

After months of lockdown, welcoming customers back to my independent shop in Manchester has delighted us all

Last modified on Mon 26 Apr 2021 05.18 EDT

The first sign that things were finally creeping back to normal in my shop was when a customer bounded in and said: “You were the last non-essential shop I went to before lockdown, and I wanted to make you the first I visited when it was over.” It was a happy, hopeful moment.

Last November I wrote about keeping an independent bookshop afloat throughout the pandemic: I’m based in Levenshulme, south Manchester – at the time it was a Covid hotspot and we were facing the prospect of another long mandatory period of closure.

I was fully aware of the very real chance that our shop, along with many other independent businesses that rely on footfall and people actually being allowed in through the door, may not survive. But for the most part I still felt, somehow, upbeat. It seemed to me then that there was a clear public groundswell towards supporting independent shops and local high streets. Most people seemed to agree, although I was also accused by some of being “falsely positive”.

Several months on, I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s been a fully positive experience, but we are still here – and, thankfully, our doors are now open once more.

Having a shop that is not allowed to be open to the public is really odd: there is a pervading sense that time is standing still, as dust gathers on your stock. When your shop is open, you often complain about how you’re too busy to sort out those fiddly jobs like getting new signage made. If only there was more time, life would be much easier. So of course, in theory, the non-essential retail pause should have been an ideal time to do all of the other things that running a shop entails. In reality, like most other people I’ve asked, we managed precisely none of that. A strange kind of inertia set in as we waited for news of a reopening date.

Now, here we are finally: open once again, and hoping against hope that this is the end of lockdowns – especially in Manchester where ours has gone on for so long. I felt jittery and nervous about reopening two weeks ago, not least because I’m still waiting for my vaccine. When people come into a bookshop they want to browse, take their time and often have a chat. And frankly I wouldn’t want any kind of bookshop without that being possible for customers. However, I caught Covid last year, despite being ultra careful, when my daughter brought it home from school, and was significantly ill. So I have felt a level of risk on reopening.

Any nerves, however, only lasted for about half an hour on day one. They were swiftly overtaken by a sense of relief and sheer joy, from both our customers and ourselves. People now seem to be much more conscious about wearing a mask all the time, and social distancing comes more naturally. Several times people said things like “we’re so glad you’re still here”, and “we were worried that you wouldn’t make it”. People talked about how much they’ve missed going to shops and wanted to keep going more often. I chatted until my throat was sore: after many months of existing in our family bubble, I was visited by both personal friends (before the Covid police kick off, they were also book shopping!) and a ton of familiar faces from the neighbourhood. It just felt nice. And normal.

I started out feeling overwhelmed, and ended our first day feeling tired but exhilarated. Just what the doctor ordered.

We received government grants to keep us afloat and pay the bills while the shop was closed, and without those I’m fully aware we would be facing the future in considerable debt. As it is, we are unlikely to be retiring on our takings – but nobody goes into the independent bookselling business for untold riches; most of us are a bunch of dreamers. But things feel good. It’s not time to make any big decisions or changes: for now we just want to breathe in that bookshop air and stay calm.

Suzy Prince is the co-owner of Bopcap Books in Levenshulme, Manchester

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