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World Book Day: Kent bookshops adapt to the challenges of lockdown

World Book Day has been energetically promoting reading for pleasure in the UK since 1997.

This year's event, being held today despite lockdown, will still be spreading the joy of picking up a book and sending £1 book tokens to schools for every child. And while many Kent bookshops have been shut for months due to the pandemic, owners hope young readers will wait to spend the tokens in their stores.

Andrea Don runs online and travelling bookshop Nickel Books in Sittingbourne.

This time of year she would usually be setting up a stall in school and reading to the children - but lockdown has changed all of that.

She said: "For bookshops and visiting bookshops like mine, the unique selling point is the fact that we can go and see the people in person, recommend the books and read the stories and be there physically.

"With lockdown, we haven't been able to. We have been having to rethink how we can be more personal than other online retailers.

"We are making sure the local community still feels we are part of their community and not just a nameless faceless internet retailer."

Andrea Don, owner of Nickel Books in Sittingbourne
Andrea Don, owner of Nickel Books in Sittingbourne

This World Book Day, though events are still being held online, many children will be unable to use their tokens on the day unless they go to a local major supermarket.

However, there is an argument for waiting for local bookstores to reopen.

Andrea added: "Schools are buying books for their libraries from us because they know I can give the best recommendations of what is popular right now and what children actually really enjoy listening to.

"I can go into those settings, read those stories and help the children to love books because they're stories and they are not necessarily learning from them.

"We don't have to sit and decode the stories all ourselves every time. It's important - but at the same time it's important to just jump into a book."

Phil Holden of Mr Books talks about the struggles of owning a bookshop

A lot of bookshops are having to adapt to a new way of selling.

Phil Holden, owner of Mr Books in Tonbridge, said: "We've hardly been open. Being online has been helped enormously by bookshop.org, where we've got a page.

"That has made a difference but it's prevented us from growing in the way we wanted to and from doing the live events we always wanted to do - get the community feeling that it was really part of a local bookshop.

"It was always much more about the shop's place in the community than it was about just shifting books at the cheapest possible price.

"Everyone is struggling - it's had an impact on all bookshops. We're in touch with quite a few on Twitter and it's a constant job for their owners to remind people that they need support."

Though lockdown has had a massive impact, bookshops have been in dire straits for years as the number of shops has been on the decline.

There were 1,894 independent bookshops in the UK in 1995 but in 2019 only 890 remained as buying books online became more convenient, according to the Booksellers Association.

Phil, who is uncertain what the future holds for his store, added: "Unfortunately, the effect of lockdown has been more and more people are getting used to buying online. Unless there's a different, much richer experience in the high street some of them won't return."

He urged book buyers to support independent traders. "If you have the choice, then consider that Amazon is a massive corporation based in the US," he said. "Local bookshops are a very different matter because they're rooted in the community.

"You can order a book in exactly the same way as you would with Amazon and you're doing a little bit more for your local bookshop in your local community, wherever you are."

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