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Supply chain shortages affecting publishers, printers and your favourite bookstore

Becca Willson

Glass Bookshop, an indie bookstore downtown Edmonton.

Whether you have always been an avid reader or not, chances are that COVID lockdowns had you at least contemplating picking up a book to pass the time. 

During the beginning of the pandemic, when people were staying home from school and their jobs almost universally, many found themselves without enough to do to keep occupied for 24 hours stuck within their own homes. Reading, either a long-loved passion or a newfound escape, comforted many within the first half of 2020.

A UK study published in March 2020 found that 41 per cent of people read more books since lockdown measures were first imposed in Britain. A corresponding Canadian study told us that about 58 per cent of us plan to read, or are already reading, more due to COVID.

Physical books have become a hot-ticket item over the last year and a half due to the surge in popularity. Books made of paper and ink, hardcover or paperback (to each their own), are a welcome change from the glowing screens we have had to spend a majority of our days on since everything, from school to work to social hangouts, went remote and online. 

Even now, with vaccinations slowly allowing the world to meet in person once again, books have provided us with a safe haven, and we aren’t ready to put them down.

Reading has become a social interaction of its own, especially on social media platforms like TikTok and Instagram. Online book clubs have also become increasingly popular to complement the physical books we have been buying, and many find comfort in their inclusion in communities fondly called ‘Booktok’ and ‘Bookstagram.’ Certain genres and specific titles have skyrocketed in popularity on these platforms, so much so that some bookstores and online sellers have sold out of particular copies. There seems to be a conversation for every type of reader and fan of every genre, so no reader is left behind. 

The story might have to wait, though. Globally, there is a looming supply shortage that could affect almost every industry that we buy goods from. There is a backup of shipping containers waiting in ports right now due to the pandemic. This is because there was a boom in online shopping swiftly followed by a bust as people ran out of money and many got laid off. We are now experiencing a second shopping spree of sorts coming out the other side of the pandemic. The containers haven’t been used for a period of time, and there is a shortage of workers. These problems have all compounded into a confusing mess of packages and goods, waiting to get to their destinations. 

You may think that this holdup would only affect things like produce or other international imports, but it’s affecting everything, including that new book you have your eye on.

On top of those shipping issues, the newfound popularity of physical books, while exciting, is a demand that publishers and printers can’t keep up with. After years of steady declines in sales, and online reading options being more accessible and popular, printing presses have been out of service, and many have closed. It can be tough enough to buy a new copy of a specific title without the added pressure of these global shortages. 

This is where used bookstores step in. 

Unlike a bookseller, who orders books from publishers and always has the newest title in stock, a used bookstore could have old classics, undiscovered treasures, old publications of the same title, and many other options for one’s reading pleasure. They are also immune to the threat of a book shortage, as they buy and resell people’s used books and are not reliant on the supply chain to order new stock.

Lianne Traynor, owner of Mandolin Books in the Highlands, is hopeful that, if there is a book shortage coming as we enter the holiday season, it will only boost sales for her and other used bookstores. Shopping for used books will help foster local business and economy, and allow the printing industry to catch up, which is also an environmentally friendly turnout. 

“There’s no shortage of used books,” Traynor says. “ I am looking at my basement of extra books in storage, and an explosion in people reading can only help me, because I have hundreds and hundreds of extra books downstairs, waiting for room upstairs. So, if it’s true, I’m excited.” 

The majority of books that Mandolin Books has on its shelves are in great condition, as well. So while used bookstores may not have the exact title you’re looking for, you can always ask for recommendations and go home with something similar that’s often in like-new condition for a better price. 

“I can afford to be really selective,” Traynor says. “People will actually sometimes come in and say, ‘Are these new or used?’ because they can’t tell. Not that they all look brand-spanking-new, but a good portion of them actually do. I can afford to only take the books in that are in very good condition.” 

Mandolin Books staff have not reported a noticeable uptake in shoppers coming in to ask for specific tiles, and usually, people will leave with a book, even if they only came in to purchase coffee. 

“Our book sales through the pandemic have been very on par with our pre-pandemic sales,” Traynor says. 

So, the story so far: Reading is a popular hobby. There may be a book shortage. Come Christmas, you may not be able to get your hands on the newest title that’s popular on TikTok. 

Fear not, because this means that you can support local businesses like used bookstores and possibly find a local option for every other gift on your list while you’re at it. Keep some money out of the hands of the mega-corporations (ahem, Amazon), and give the global economy a chance to catch up from its pandemic backlog. What a novel idea. 

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