Literature-lover Nicola Sturgeon should lift bookshop ban and bring them into line with garden centres – Brian Ferguson

I’m sure there are no shortage of exasperated business owners in Scotland in the run-up to Christmas given the impact of the country’s five-tier system of restrictions on what, for most of them, will be one of the busiest, if not the busiest times of the year.

Sally Pattle, who runs the Far From The Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow, instigated the open letter to the First Minister
Sally Pattle, who runs the Far From The Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow, instigated the open letter to the First Minister

However trying to keep an independent bookshop afloat in an area with the most stringent restrictions in place must be a contender for one of the most frustrating experiences at the moment.

That’s because bookshops have been placed firmly in the bracket of non-essential retail under the Scottish government’s latest guidelines for the retail sector.

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This seems harsh from the outset given the clear benefits reading books can bring, even at the best of times.

the Far From The Madding Crowd bookshop in Linlithgow

First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has been one of the biggest champions of picking up a book to escape from the daily anxieties and stresses in navigating the impact of the pandemic, including telling her 1.3 million Twitter followers: “Books are always a source of comfort and perspective in tough times.”

In the last couple of weeks alone the First Minister has congratulated Douglas Stuart, the country’s first Booker Prize winner in more than 25 years, offered a guided virtual tour of her bookshelves to mark Scotland’s annual celebration of reading, and even shown how her favourite books of the year were being used as props for her speech at the SNP’s online conference.

All this makes it even more baffling that bookshops have been ranked alongside pubs, restaurants, cafes and bars when it has come to deciding what should open or close in Level 4 areas in the run-up to Christmas.

But it begins to look even more bizarre when you see what kind of shops have been granted an exemption by the Scottish government.

Garden centres, “homewear” stores, bike shops, fast-food takeways, off-licences and pet food shops are all able to trade legally in Level 4 areas like Glasgow, Lanarkshire, West Lothian, Ayrshire and Stirling. Are pots of paint, pizzas and bottles of prosecco really more essential than the latest novel by Ian Rankin, Maggie O’Farrell, Val McDermid or Ali Smith?

To rub salt into the wounds of those at the sharp end of the publishing industry, people will still be able to buy books for festive gifts over the counter at garden centres and supermarkets, although the choice is almost certain to be much more mainstream than a well-stocked bookstore.

It is this apparent anomaly and Nicola’s enthusiastic support for Scottish authors and passion for reading that has prompted an open letter to the First Minister pleading for a rethink before it is too late for independent bookshops battling for survival.

Sally Pattle, the owner of West Lothian shop Far From The Madding Crowd, has rallied together more than 40 independent bookstores, major publishers and authors including Alexander McCall Smith and James Robertson to a campaign aimed at changing the First Minister’s mind to help give them “a fighting chance” of making it through the winter.

In the great scheme of things, with all the First Minister is dealing with right now, it is understandable that ensuring the survival of bookshops is not at a top priority. But adding them to the list of exempted retailers is a small measure that could go a long way this winter.

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