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British readers boost home libraries to up videoconferencing game

Victoria Craig Feb 10, 2021
Heard on:
"Now we get about five to 10 queries every single week from people who are really faced with the prospect of having to turn their home environment into their office environment," said Nick Bates, CEO of Bookbarn International. iStock/Getty Images

British readers boost home libraries to up videoconferencing game

Victoria Craig Feb 10, 2021
Heard on:
"Now we get about five to 10 queries every single week from people who are really faced with the prospect of having to turn their home environment into their office environment," said Nick Bates, CEO of Bookbarn International. iStock/Getty Images

The coronavirus pandemic has changed society’s priorities in an endless number of ways. One we might not have anticipated a year ago: how much we care about what’s in the background of video calls.

The rise of videoconferencing has made folks in the frame and all of the other viewers at home scrutinize what books line a shelf or what tchotchkes are clearly visible. And the desire to project a certain image has also led some to invest in personal libraries of all sizes and genres.

Bookbarn International, a bookseller based in the English city of Bristol, sells its books online and has also made a business selling “Books by the Yard” that production companies use on TV and movie sets. But the company’s CEO Nick Bates told the BBC’s Victoria Craig that in the last year, he’s seen a sizable rise in the number of inquiries from new customers looking to bolster their book collections at home.

Below is an edited version of their conversation on the global edition of “Marketplace Morning Report.”

Nick Bates: The biggest part of our business, about 80%, is going through online marketplaces. So Amazon, eBay and some smaller ones in more specialist areas. And then the other 20% of our business is made up of a brick-and-mortar bookshop. We have another business called Books by the Yard where we sell in bulk, as the name suggests. We sell anything from a single yard of books up to filling complete home libraries or video sets and TV program backdrops.

“I’d like some books from a decor point of view”

Victoria Craig: How much has demand soared during the pandemic? When did you really see business pick up?

Bates: Well, it’s really shifted. The traditional customer base for Books by the Yard is a lot of interior design, restaurants, hospitality — when new hotels or restaurants open up, and they want a backdrop that fits the certain style from a decor point of view. A lot of that business has actually obviously dried up as businesses have had to lock down over the period. But going right back to kind of April last year, we had a couple of inquiries where people were looking to basically fill the gaps in their shelves. Now we get about five to 10 queries every single week from people who are really faced with the prospect of having to turn their home environment into their office environment. So they’re really conscious of their work surroundings and trying to decorate accordingly.

Craig: So people actually tell you, “I want to make my Zoom background, effectively, look a little bit better than what I have.”

Bates: Yeah, it does happen. But actually, more often than not people are coming to us and saying, “My office or the area in which I work, it looks pretty sparse. I’d like some books from a decor point of view. So I’d like three yards of books or five yards of books.” And the times it works best is when we enter into a dialogue with the customer, and we understand what they’re into.

Craig: So it’s not just a vanity project for some people? They actually do care what the books are that sit on those shelves behind them?

Bates: Yeah, definitely. The vast majority of people are really interested. They realize they kind of satisfy both of those cravings: one from a decor point of view, but also from a reading point of view. One of the things that we’ve been kind of pointing out to people is that with a book collection of any kind of decent size, whether it be like 25 books, 50 books or more, most people will admit to having not read all of the books on their shelf. But they have satisfaction in knowing they’re there as and when they get time to read them.

The cost of sprucing up your Zoom background

Craig: I think I’m guilty of that. I’ve probably bought more books than I care to admit during lockdown, and I think I’ve only gotten about 25% of the way through most of them. But Nick, on average, how much would you say your customers are willing to spend on these sorts of projects? Does it depend on the size of the library and the books that they want to buy?

Bates: Exactly, yes. So if a customer is looking for a single yard of like popular fiction, say like a yard of crime novels, we have those in abundance, and we can get our hands on them really quickly. And they’re only after a single yard. So that might be anything between like 50 and 100 pounds. If somebody is looking for older books in a specific subject area, the kind of scarcity of those books and the age come into play. Some of the best examples would be when we were dealing with TV and film in the past and period pieces. Companies might have to satisfy a very, very specific brief. So they wouldn’t want, necessarily, a book that was published two years after the scene that they were filming was out. If somebody is looking to fill a library scene in “Downton Abbey,” then you’re talking about a large volume of books that are harder to come by.

New demand for home libraries to make up for lost sales elsewhere

Craig: Has the demand that you’ve seen from these personal collections filled the gap that you saw when TV and film production stopped because of the pandemic?

Bates: Yeah, that’s exactly right. It’s grown over the whole period. I think it’s, A, people have realized that working from home is likely for a lot of people to go on beyond the kind of immediate term. TV and film production, that has come back a little bit. But the hospitality industry is obviously still massively challenged. So this is an area which is growing. It certainly did a great job of replacing some of those sales that suffered as a direct result of the lockdowns. And it continues to grow as, I think, people take on new habits.

Craig: Or even move into bigger houses, away from the city centers, and they have room for these nice personal libraries. Do you think, Nick, this will change how you do business in the future? Do you think you’ll do more of these personal collections versus, say, you know, movie sets and things like that?

Bates: Yeah, I hope those are aspects of this business that will bounce back and bounce back strongly. And I think this will have added a new element to this area of our business specifically, as you say, as people kind of think more about their home environment.

Craig: Nick, do you have a sizable personal library? Is there a favorite book that you have on the shelf that you like to point out during your Zoom meetings?

Bates: I got a decent-sized library. I’m really pleased with it. As long as it reflects you and you’re happy with it, then that’s important. But on mine, I’ve got some nice running books, of which I have not read nearly enough. And they’re probably my favorites.

COVID-19 Economy FAQs

So what’s up with “Zoom fatigue”?

It’s a real thing. The science backs it up — there’s new research from Stanford University. So why is it that the technology can be so draining? Jeremy Bailenson with Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab puts it this way: “It’s like being in an elevator where everyone in the elevator stopped and looked right at us for the entire elevator ride at close-up.” Bailenson said turning off self-view and shrinking down the video window can make interactions feel more natural and less emotionally taxing.

How are Americans spending their money these days?

Economists are predicting that pent-up demand for certain goods and services is going to burst out all over as more people get vaccinated. A lot of people had to drastically change their spending in the pandemic because they lost jobs or had their hours cut. But at the same time, most consumers “are still feeling secure or optimistic about their finances,” according to Candace Corlett, president of WSL Strategic Retail, which regularly surveys shoppers. A lot of people enjoy browsing in stores, especially after months of forced online shopping. And another area expecting a post-pandemic boost: travel.

What happened to all of the hazard pay essential workers were getting at the beginning of the pandemic?

Almost a year ago, when the pandemic began, essential workers were hailed as heroes. Back then, many companies gave hazard pay, an extra $2 or so per hour, for coming in to work. That quietly went away for most of them last summer. Without federal action, it’s mostly been up to local governments to create programs and mandates. They’ve helped compensate front-line workers, but they haven’t been perfect. “The solutions are small. They’re piecemeal,” said Molly Kinder at the Brookings Institution’s Metropolitan Policy Program. “You’re seeing these innovative pop-ups because we have failed overall to do something systematically.”

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