Sotheran’s, Historic London Bookseller, Reports on Emergence from Pandemic
- by Susan Halas
London is emerging from one of the most challenging years in its history.
“Sotheran's home is London,” wrote Chris Saunders, 47, the managing director for Henry Sotheran Ltd. “ We've been here for over 200 years, which is a long time, but only the blink of an eye for a city with Roman origins, a city that has survived the Black Death, the Great Fire and the Blitz.”
Who better, we thought, to update us on how this company and the book world in London is emerging from the pandemic?
Asked about the impact of the health emergency Saunders replied, “The covid lockdown affected our business almost instantly. Sales plummeted until we got our digital campaigns up to speed, and even then we're down about 40% on a usual year. A lot of our employees were furloughed and for the first lockdown we had one or two people coming in once a week to pack orders, while everyone else who was working was working from home.
“Working from home turned out OK for most people, the main difficulty being the logistics of sending and receiving stock and the inevitable meltdowns of remote working systems. Now the shop has re-opened but we are operating with a skeleton crew, as there is not enough footfall to warrant a full re-opening and some restrictions on people mixing are still in place.
As for morale, initially, he observed …”the first three months of the pandemic were a time of Blitz spirit, applauding the National Health Service and knitting facemasks, and as time wore on people retreated into themselves. It is hard not to when you are prevented from seeing even your own family. London has actually been relatively safe compared to some of the northern cities - places like Liverpool and Leicester spent months under the most severe lockdown regulations, and times were very hard up there.
…."What sticks in the mind is the sheer drudgery of living and working under lockdown. Nothing dramatic or funny really happened during the pandemic because everyone was at home and the only contact most people had was online. This means that there is a general sympathy among people in the trade, but no real stories to tell, apart from news of illness or deaths. The Antiquarian Booksellers Association (ABA) and Provincial Booksellers Fairs Association (PBFA) have done what they can to bring people together through online fairs and discussions, but it all feels very atomised. The biggest news anyone has is the date of their vaccination.
“I have to say, I don't think anyone has encountered anything quite like the covid pandemic before. Even during the Blitz, people were allowed to go in to work, and Sotheran's did a pretty good trade during the war selling to people like Churchill and Viscount Alanbrooke who had offices just down the road. The bombing of London did destroy our archives, but the shop was miraculously left unscathed. Of course, the war wasn't great for the economy, and Sotheran's only just survived the Great Depression through the investment of Gabriel Wells, but the company has always adapted in order to survive.
Asked if Sotheran’s made a significant effort to sell virtually, he reported: “We have done a couple of online fairs, mainly the ABA's Firsts Online. The first one was very good, but the response of the public seems to have diminished which each successive fair. I wonder if people are bored of online fairs now, which I find are often hard to navigate and unfocussed, and are holding fire now that real-life fairs are on the horizon again.
“Necessity being the mother of invention, we have expanded our digital presence beyond our previous imaginings. We now have over 32k Twitter followers, tens of thousands of visitors to our website and ever increasing online sales - it has taken a global pandemic of medieval proportions to drag us into the twenty-first century. It is very encouraging for the future, though, to have built this digital foundation for the revival of our very analogue business. We have picked up new customers in corners of the world that we haven't previously touched, and who come back to us, which can only be good.
“Our plan is to keep going, grow the digital side of the business further, and make the shop even more special than it already is so that when people come back to London they rush over to see us!
Saunders thought the experiences of business in the US and the UK had some similarities: “There were various government schemes - business loans, reductions in business rates (the tax we pay on our premises), grants, the furlough scheme in which the government pays 80% of staff wages - all of which we used, and which, with a rent reduction from our landlord, have helped to see us through. There was a moratorium on evictions for both residential and commercial properties. Some of these measures are ongoing, which is good because we have only been able to re-open our doors on April 12th this year with a lot of restrictions, after two false starts last year.
“We were able to open in the summer and just before Christmas, but as soon as we got any momentum going we had to shut again due to rising infection rates. We hope this time that the vaccination programme, which has been efficient against all expectations, means we can stay open permanently. We need to start selling strongly so that when the government help stops we are not left on a cliff-edge.
Fortunately, he wrote: “Our staff have largely remained healthy - a couple of people suspect that they might have had covid early on, before there was any proper testing, but we shall probably never know. Everyone who is eligible to be vaccinated (over 30s at the time of writing) has had at least one jab, which is really encouraging. We have lost some customers - some customers we knew very well, which is horribly sad. In the shop we haven't really experienced any backlash against wearing masks. Anti-vaxxers do exist, and they do have small demonstrations, but I don't think anyone other than themselves takes them very seriously.
“Everything in Britain rests on the vaccination programme. Boris Johnson is very lucky that the scientists bailed him out, because without the vaccinations the UK would be in real trouble. As it is, there is a lot of worry over the Indian variant, but I think we're all optimistic that we will pull through that as more people get the jab.
“If you want to talk about parallels between the political situations in the UK and US, you should talk about Brexit, the effects of which have been obscured by the pandemic but which is, I think, a time bomb waiting to go off underneath the government. The fishing industry realises it has been sold a lemon, and when the pandemic calms down we will all begin to see the repercussions. Already, we have trouble exporting to the EU in terms of customs duties and taxes that our clients now have to pay.
“The George Floyd incident was obviously of bigger import in the States, but it did have a big impact here. Black Lives Matter has become very influential, especially among younger people, and the race debate has really come to the forefront. The UK has plenty of racists who use the 'All Lives Matter' slogan to hide behind, and I think BLM has made us all think more about the language we use about race, as well as about the history of racism.
“I think the US Capitol attack was, to most Brits, completely incomprehensible. Why were people engaging in armed combat to defend someone like Donald Trump? We read the analyses, but we are missing that visceral feeling that people in the States obviously have.
Turning back to the book business, he remarked: “What we have seen is that the book trade is resilient - collectors still want to buy lovely things, and are generally very understanding about the logistical problems and delays and extra expense that operating in a pandemic can bring. In some ways it has brought us closer to our customers. There has been an enormous amount of goodwill, which I think is so encouraging for the trade as we rebuild over the next couple of years.
“A lot of the London middle-class did decamp to their holiday homes in Cornwall, against government guidance and much to the concern of the residents there, who all have to use just the one hospital. People have returned to the capital, and we wish more would follow - they are crucial to the London economy, and to the general jollity of the place! We need more tourists too, especially in our area of London where there isn't really a residential community, but with continued travel restrictions I don't think we will see many until next year.
“Now London is emerging from one of the most challenging years in its history and we want to play our part in celebrating the resilience and spirit of our great city. As shops, restaurants and museums open and people are once more out and about, we are very happy to throw our doors wide and present a collection of books on London, covering its history, culture, architecture and people.”
About Sotheran’s Ltd: We were founded in York in 1761 by Henry Sotheran, and moved down to London in 1805. We are still family owned, though not by the Sotherans - the last Sotheran was killed by a tram in the 1930s. There have been other branches, but for now it's just Sackville Street. We have 11 staff, roughly 8,500 items of inventory, and we try to be fairly general but have special interests in natural history, travel, children's books, literature, travel posters and John Gould. We bought the great ornithologist's entire estate when he died in the 1880s, so his work really is part of our heritage. Sotheran's also commissioned the Great Omar, the stupendously bound book that went to the bottom of the ocean on the Titanic,and was heavily involved in the early days of the Folger and the Morgan libraries.
Chris Saunders has been at Sotheran's since 2004. He took over as Managing Director in 2018. His own area of specialty is Natural History, especially Darwinism. Reach him at: email@example.com
Henry Sotheran Ltd.
2-5 Sackville Street
Tel: 0207 439 6151
Fax: 0207 434 2019