During lockdown, bookstores were considered “essential services” – along with supermarkets and flower shops – and stayed open the entire time. But was it all smooth sailing? We’ve been hearing how our favourite shops handled the crisis. Next up, one of Berlin’s oldest English-language bookstores, Saint George’s.
Paul Gurner, the Cambridge-born owner of Prenzlauer Berg’s Saint George’s bookshop, was first seriously impacted by the coronavirus when his two staff phoned in early March to say they weren’t comfortable coming into the shop for work. He was in the UK buying books and, as a single parent unable to work a full 60-hour week every week, came back to find that the only way to keep the shop running was to maintain it one-week open, one-week closed. But luckily for Prenzlauer Berg’s book lovers, Gurner and his staff are back to their usual schedule and open every week.
Gurner focuses on used books, which make up 70 to 80 percent of his stock. “What really impacted us, which I didn’t realise immediately, was the distribution from England and the US,” he says. “We ordered before the crisis from them directly rather than German wholesalers as it’s easier to get some of the more offbeat titles from them.”
But the shop’s suppliers closed at the beginning of April. “The American one reopened but the British one is still closed,” Gurner says. “We’re finding it really difficult to source books right now – our British wholesaler has totally cut off postal orders.” How the second-hand books can be restocked remains a big question as the collection largely relies on Gurner being able to travel regularly to the UK.
Gurner has worked to make visiting Saint George’s as safe as possible. He booked a meeting with the Ordnungsamt, who suggested no more than five people at a time should be allowed into the 90sqm space. On their recommendation, he also moved the furniture so that people would keep a distance between each other naturally, and used banana boxes to extend the counter and create space between him and his customers. But the reduced business hours meant Gurner lost around half of the shop’s April trade. He applied for the Senat’s Soforthilfe financial aid and received €5000. It was quickly spent on the shop’s monthly running costs, which average between €6000 and €7000.
“We’ve been around since 2003 and have a lot of regular customers,” Gurner says. “Financially we are okay for now, but we couldn’t run at a loss for much longer.” Now that lockdown is loosened, things are starting to get better. “Most people didn’t get the message that bookshops were on the list of essential services straight away,” he says. “They were surprised to hear we’ve been here on-and-off the whole time.”