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Bookstores, such as this Indigo location seen in Laval, Que. Nov. 4, 2020, play a critical role in society, especially during lockdown.Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press

Heather Reisman is the chief executive officer of Indigo. Kristin Cochrane is the chief executive officer of Penguin Random House Canada.

As leaders in the Canadian publishing and bookselling industries, we believe that the availability of books through bookstores is essential for Canadians in communities across this country. Whether independently owned and operated, such as Type Books or Ben McNally in Toronto, McNally Robinson in Winnipeg, Vancouver Kidsbooks, or bigger chains such as Indigo Indigo, Chapters and Coles, bookstores perform a critical role that must be considered in any future restrictions or measures to lock down.

Reading has many proven benefits for mental health and empathy, and, crucially during this unprecedented crisis, books are a cornerstone of education. These benefits are long-lasting and foundational – but they are also immediate and urgent, and their preservation is critical, given the disruption that the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed on the educational system.

Books provide families with essential resources for literacy and for children’s cognitive development, and, later, for their full participation in civic society. And bookstores provide an essential means for all of us to be educated, entertained, informed and enlightened.

We’ve seen enough data on how many children’s books, self-help books and works of informative non-fiction have sold in these months to know the critical role that books have played for people during this pandemic. Books in the self-care and mental health space, for instance, have seen sales rise 70 per cent this year alone. This surge in sales is proof that Canadians are turning to books for all these reasons – to escape, to learn, to take stress out of their lives, to support their children and most importantly for help understanding how to cope with the demands of the moment.

In recent years, pressures on bricks-and-mortar booksellers have mounted, with rising labour costs and rent, and ever steeper competition from online retailers whose scale and cost structure cannot be matched by our independent and national retailers. COVID-19, occurring at this already difficult moment, has also made impossible the in-person author events that so many bookstores rely upon for added revenue and that add to the community hub feel of a bookstore. It is a precarious moment for an already fragile retail landscape.

Since the start of the pandemic, Indigo, Chapters, Coles and many other bookstores have taken extreme precautions to protect the members of the communities they serve. Throughout the country, retailers small and large have spent a considerable amount of money retooling their operations to accommodate public safety and go well beyond local, provincial and federal guidance for the safety of their customers.

Most bookstores require full face masks, follow diligent processes to limit the number of individuals allowed in their stores at any time, regularly clean surfaces, restrict the recirculation of inventory, provide customers with and operate with hand sanitizer, provide contactless payment and require physical distancing.

Without the benefit of better contact tracing or data that suggest community spread through bookstores, it seems especially punitive to Canadian readers and writers to require any closures at this time. Considering that beer and wine were deemed essential in the spring lockdowns, we feel that an exemption for bookstores at this time is not just critical, but fair.

There are online options, though they are out of reach for the millions of Canadians who do not shop that way. And the low-margin nature of the books business, coupled with high postal rates and distribution costs in our large country, mean that online commerce is not a profitable avenue for Canadian booksellers of any size. Furthermore, as Canadians now prepare to shop for the holiday period we simply do not have the supply chain capability to handle the volumes of packages that even partial shutdowns will thrust upon our fulfilment systems.

Books are essential, and Canadians need direct access to them now more than ever.

We are joined in this call by the hundreds of independent book retailers across this country too, who know better than anyone the lifeline they provide for the well-being and educational enrichment of communities across Canada.

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