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Capitol Hill Books, Washington, DC.
Ephrat Livni
Capitol Hill Books in Washington, DC.
READER READINESS

The case for books as “essential” in a time of pandemic

Washington DC
Ephrat Livni
By Ephrat Livni

Senior reporter, law & politics, DC.

Food, water, and medicine are obvious essentials right now. We rely on these things to survive. Technically, however, we don’t need lots of the other stuff that was a given before the coronavirus pandemic made shut-ins of a huge chunk of the global population.

Thus, what is essential has become a matter of great debate around the world. Depending on who you ask and where they live, the answers differ drastically.

For example, in Belgium, where routine daily life has mostly ground to a halt, access to frites (or what we in English call french fries to the dismay of Belgians) is critical. Thus, friteries—kiosks devoted to the distribution of fries—remain open when many other businesses are shuttered.

In California, marijuana has been deemed essential. In the Netherlands, too, the herbal medicine remains available to soothe the people in these very stressful times. France considers wine and fine food essential. And in Germany, France, and Belgium, booksellers are indispensable (link in French).

In fact, one Berlin bookseller tells Quartz that the large, independent bookstore where he’s worked for the past year has seen some literary panic shopping of late. Readers are stocking up and aiming high.

“People are definitely buying stacks of books,” says John Owen. “More people are buying what might be called ‘ambitious reads,’ or big, fat books.” Children’s books are also in high demand, as were texts on the early-20th-century flu pandemic until they sold out. A lot of people are also reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, a tale about civilization’s collapse.

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Practically speaking, bookshops are taking measures to prevent the spread of disease while recognizing the need to feed people’s minds. Customers are carefully following social distancing directives. Transactions with clerks are now handled through a plastic barrier and no cash is accepted as per the government’s request, Owen says.

He isn’t too worried about the shop surviving for a little while but doesn’t imagine it will be able to remain in business for many months in these conditions. He and his colleagues are already considering new ways to get books to eager readers, like deliveries of various themed packages designed for different tastes. There are those who wish to revel in delights and not think about the virus and those who are intent on digging in to all the disaster and dystopia texts they can get—and booksellers happy to serve them all.

A bookstore of one’s own

Similarly, at Washington, DC’s historic Capitol Hill Books, which sells used and rare texts, co-owner Kyle Burk is still hard at work. The store is closed officially but selling online and open by appointment to groups of four or fewer people in one-hour increments. Every slot was booked this week, Burk says.

Those who get in—like this reporter—must sanitize their hands upon entrance, wear plastic gloves, and keep six feet away from others.

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As this safe distance, Burk shared his concerns about the shop’s future. Capitol Hill Books employs five people full-time, pays some of their insurance costs, and has limited financial reserves. Burk was an employee before he was one of the store’s owners, and he invested in the business because the narrow building with three floors lined with texts became “home.”

He imagines that the business will withstand two to three months of deflated sales due to local closures, but without significant government assistance, it would be difficult to keep everyone paid and insured and the store running for very much longer.

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From Burk’s perspective, books are essential, and independent booksellers are too. “Cities are all becoming selfsame,” he complains. All around the world, you can go to a major city and find the same chains. Locally, he’s been dismayed to watch an area of Georgetown called “Book Hill” transform from a center for text consumption into a quaint shopping neighborhood devoted to literature only in name.

“This is one of the last unique spots,” he says of his shop, with its shelves boasting rarities and oddities. If it falls fatally victim to the pandemic’s economic effects, it will be a cultural loss for the US capital, and one that’s not likely to be replaced.

Books and death

Current crisis aside, Owen and Burk both find the bookselling business hopeful. In stark contrast to those who claim reading printed texts is totally passé, they say most of their customers are relatively young, in their 20s and 30s. In other words, people who are accustomed to being online still find value and pleasure in non-electronic reading.

Indeed, independent bookstores—in part thanks to Instagram—have been doing pretty brisk business in recent years, and being seen reading physical texts is very chic. The American Booksellers Association says its membership is continually growing. Meanwhile, sales of physical books have been on the rise since 2013.

That’s why Lisa Lucas, executive director of the National Book Foundation, wrote in Time last year, “Stop saying books are dead. They are more alive than ever.” Research that shows 24% of Americans no longer read books is anything but depressing, she says. It shows the vast majority of people are literary and that the US is “a nation of readers.”

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For many, books are essential. They provide food for thought. At a time when our thoughts are running wild, escaping into other experiences, or trying to understand what’s happening through the lens of historical accounts, is a kind of lifesaver.

But a book is not a respirator, after all, and so even in places where they are an important source of solace in an extremely challenging time—like in Italy—many dispute the argument that texts are essential.

Precious papers

Just as some French wine purveyors appreciated being classified as critical but acknowledged this week that they’re not quite as important as grocers selling food and water, some Italians, including literature lovers, reject the essential text argument. As Quartz’s Annalisa Merelli explains, the debate raging in her mother country, the notion is “cute” but reveals the elitism of some intellectuals.

While some booksellers in Italy certainly do believe they should be open for business—especially since newsstands were deemed essential and Amazon is delivering books—others are pushing back against those demands. Merelli’s friend Stefano Calafiore, a bookseller in Bergamo, recently posted on Facebook that he opposes reopening shops or allowing bookstores to deliver.

“If you have nothing to read, too bad. You should have gone to the bookstores first,” he wrote. He’s urging everyone to follow directives to stay home.

And Calafiore does have a point. If books were so very important to Italians, presumably people would have emptied the shelves of booksellers before they had to shutter as they did those of grocers who would remain open, snatching up almost all the pasta.

Even toilet paper is arguably more essential than texts if recent consumer behavior is any indication. That stuff has been difficult to obtain pretty much everywhere.

In early February, a toilet paper pinch was already being felt in Hong Kong, according to Quartz editor Tripti Lahiri. Now, it’s a super hot commodity in Washington, DC, too. It takes a certain resourcefulness and patience to find a roll (this reporter’s household obtained its small supply at a liquor store that’s now selling gloves and other pandemic-related products).

And it seems possible that if this shortage continues or worsens, some people may even start ripping pages out of books to use as toilet paper (but please don’t because there are quite a few cultures that have not adopted this product and manage just fine with water and strict rules for hygiene!).

People of the book

Perhaps books aren’t essential then, not technically, in the existential sense. But conceiving of them as noncritical is problematic, too.

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We should not be so eager to jettison texts, to embrace the idea that we might not really need them. Because if we do, then perhaps when the next pandemic or disaster strikes, there will be no one reading our testimony, the tales we’ll write about what we’re living today, the way people are reading Albert Camus’ The Plague.

Maybe the real danger is that in conceiving of books as nonessential we will render them so and lose something incalculable.

As Ray Bradbury put it in Fahrenheit 451, a dystopian novel about a society that burned and banned literature, “Books were only one type of receptacle where we stored a lot of things we were afraid we might forget. There is nothing magical in them, at all. The magic is only in what books say, how they stitched the patches of the universe together into one garment for us.”

Say what you will about the glorious and sprawling internet, which is keeping us connected as we distance physically, but it doesn’t accomplish that arduous task quite as handily.

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