Readings owner Mark Rubbo shares his coronavirus diary: March 27, 2020

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This is the first diary entry from Mark Rubbo, managing director of Victorian bookseller Readings, about how his business is meeting the challenges of the coronavirus pandemic. Readings operates seven bookshops in Melbourne, as well as an e-commerce store, and has been operating since 1969.

I email our accountant asking how long can we trade without any income? What are our liabilities? What can we do for our staff? We have a number of casuals with no leave provisions, how can we help? Who needs help? What about our publishers and authors? How will we sell their books? How will we let you know about them? How can we get them to you?

My dear son Joe says these times will test our relationship, that we have to be kind to each other. As a baby boomer I’ve had a fortunate life, luck seemed to stay with me. That’s not true for these times. The State Library tells us that they are closing and our shop there has to close; seven of our team are affected. It brings it home. We make the hard decision to cancel all our events; Chris, our marvellous events and programming manager, has numerous stellar sessions scheduled. It’s hard for her; all that work gone in a flash.

How will Readings survive a shutdown? How will other shops? Chris Redfern, from the wonderful Avenue Bookshops, rings me – we talk about how long we can last. Leesa Lambert from Neighbourhood Books and The Little Bookroom sends me a text, sharing the love. Deb Force from The Sun Bookshop in Yarraville announces that she’s going to do free home deliveries; what a great idea.

We jump in too, not knowing how it will work. It’s tricky; I enlist my son-in-law as my driver, using an app that supposedly takes us on the most efficient route – “Didn’t we just go past there a few minutes ago?” We drop off some books for a customer who is also a friend; he calls out to his wife, “Mark’s here with the books, come and say hello”. As I leave another house, a loud, delighted cry of “Yaaay” echoes across the street. At our other shops, people pitch in to deliver books, albums, DVDs, sticker books, puzzles and more on their way home. Pierre at St Kilda delights a customer’s elderly parents who are confined to their house.

We send out an email to the 150 lovely people who work for us: we may have to close, all our jobs are affected, but it’s important that we support you and also that Readings comes out the other end. I’m overwhelmed by the responses: reduce my salary, cut my hours, I’ll take unpaid leave, I’ll work for nothing, I want us to survive. But there’s also the response from those who are really struggling, who really need the income.

It’s a great big family, we’re all pitching in to help. Online orders arrive with lovely messages of support and encouragement. We wait every day for an announcement about whether we should close our physical shops, and we think about all the ways we can continue to serve our community in these extraordinary circumstances. We are all getting unsettled and have good days, bad days. I shouted at a colleague; how could I do that?

So, the message? Support each other, conserve to rebuild something better, and don’t shout at loved ones or colleagues.

This article was first published on the Readings website and is shared is permission. 

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