Covid-19 has changed the fabric of our lives in unexpected ways. In 2020 we found ourselves shut off from our former lives, which meant that, suddenly, going to the gym and our local pub were out but baking and books were in.
The challenge for independent Sydney bookshops, like Newtown’s Better Read Than Dead, is how to overcome the logistical challenges of a pandemic at the same time as trying to meet the increased demand for books.
“The crisis has forced us to consider how we can make our existing website and social-media platforms more accessible and capable of withstanding a larger volume of traffic,” says Emma Cross, assistant manager at Better Read Than Dead. “The situation has also led to an enormous outpouring of support and love from our community in Newtown and beyond. Customers will often include messages of support with their web orders and have been so generous with the number of books they purchase.”
The King Street bookstore is taking social distancing seriously, says Cross. “We are disinfecting our store computers, Eftpos terminals and store surfaces several times a day. In store, customers are urged to stand 1.5-metres apart by standing on the yellow crosses on the floor. We’re also restricting the number of customers in the store. We are very appreciative of the patience of our customers who are happy to wait outside for their turn.”
There are options for those who can’t visit the physical shop. The store is hosting author talks and book clubs via Zoom, and if you live locally, you can have your literary haul delivered by car or bike. On Instagram, Better Read is selling curated stacks of books through its stories. “This allows us to show off our booksellers’ wealth of knowledge, highlight titles that may have been forgotten and, of course, get people excited about brand new fiction and non-fiction releases,” says Cross.
A “virtual bookseller” service recommends books to readers based on their mood. You might be chasing some comic relief in the form of a light read, or some prescient escapism via dystopian fiction. “Customers are encouraged to share their #brtdisoreads with us using this hashtag – we love reposting customer photos to our feed or stories,” says Cross.
So, what should you read while you’re social distancing?
“Customers are certainly gravitating towards the large fictional universes of authors such as Hilary Mantel. As expected, dystopic fiction is also enjoying a boom, with great new local releases such as Laura Jean McKay’s The Animals in That Country,” says Cross. “Many of our customers are enjoying the extended time indoors to escape reality, but they’re also keen on tackling their bucket list of authors and indulging in a nice hardback which looks good on their bookshelf.”
Cross shares six picks that cater to all literary tastes:
Her Body and Other Parties by Carmen Maria Machado
Machado’s collection of short stories is beloved by Better Read staff, says Cross. “Think a whole chapter dedicated to retelling Law and Order: SVU plot lines, which get progressively darker and more absurd.”
Weather by Jenny Offill
Before the Covid-19 pandemic landed on our doorstep, it was the spectre of climate change that kept us awake at night. In Weather, an “introspective” novella-length literary work by New York-based writer Jenny Offill, the threat of ecological disaster plagues its characters. Weather “perfectly captures what it is like to live and raise children in these unstable times,” says Cross.
Blueberries by Ellena Savage
Australian writer Ellena Savage has received warm praise for Blueberries, her debut essay collection that breaks boundaries and defies classification. Blueberries “will have you chuckling and then weeping in the space of the same sentence,” says Cross.
Sand Talk by Tyson Yunkaporta
In Sand Talk, Aboriginal author and academic Tyson Yunkaporta applies an Indigenous lens to global systems to propose a different way of understanding the world. The book’s subtitle – “How Indigenous thinking can save the world” – reflects the author’s pragmatic approach. “So many customers returned to the store just to express to us how Yunkaporta has completely changed the way they consider the local environment,” says Cross.
Pasta Grannies: The secrets of Italy’s best home cooks by Vicky Bennison
Many of us are spending social isolation in the kitchen, finally committing to time-consuming projects such as baking sourdough, slow-roasting meats and, of course, trying our hand at fresh pasta, which makes Pasta Grannies, a new cookbook from the cooks behind the popular YouTube channel of the same name, a bible for our times. Thumb its pages to learn all the tips and tricks that come from a lifetime spent in the kitchen. The book is filled with “timeless recipes coupled with the stories of the families that have preserved them for generations”, says Cross.
Blakwork by Alison Whittaker
Social isolation presents a rare opportunity that was often missing from our fast-paced pre-pandemic lives to engage with poetry. Alison Whittaker is a Gomeroi poet and essayist who now resides in Sydney. In 2018, she released Blakwork, an insightful and original collection of poetry that saw her nominated for a slew of awards. “We have been so lucky to work with Alison on several events,” says Cross. “Her collection remains a staple of our poetry shelf.”