Today, Waterford.FYI talks to Maeve Ryan, CEO of The Book Centre in Waterford about how life has changed in the store since the lockdown in March and how they’ve continued to bring their customers their weekly favourites despite doors shut.
About The Book Centre
It was Maeve Ryan’s father, Sean Ryan who started the family run business in 1973. It is one of the largest, independent book stores in Waterford, with sister stores in Kilkenny, Naas and Wexford.
Housed in the in the old Art Deco styled Savoy Cinema( built 1937), today, it’s a popular meeting place for locals, where friends catch up for a coffee, shop for some gifts, browse the huge range of books and stationary, and let the kids run amuck through the family-friendly book section at the back of the shop.
Below, find out what Maeve has to say about her experience of the past few months. The Book Centre is a fine example of how teams are pulling together during the pandemic to keep things moving for customers.
Read the interview
How have things changed for you since the lockdown in March?
Everything has changed for us. We closed our shops on the 16th of March, the day before St. Patrick’s day and had to make the difficult decision of not to open back up on the Wednesday after. That was a big shock. Things spiralled very fast really, like everyone else, we were watching China, it (COVID-19) was going to Italy and kept saying “Ireland will be ok. I had to make the decision on the Monday and rang our shops at 6’0 clock to say that we wouldn’t be opening back up.
We’re in Waterford for nearly 50 years and we’ve never had to close our shops for an emergency like this. We are now just operating from our website, which was a very small facet of our business and is now our only way to sell our products and of making some sort of income. Anyone that can are working from home and we have a very small team working on the website, social distancing of course.
How has the shutdown of so much impacted the community, your staff, and suppliers?
We’re synonymous with customer service and providing a nice atmosphere for people to come in and have a coffee, have a Leonida chocolate, or browse magazines and books and go upstairs and have a chat. Obviously none of that is going on now that shop is closed.
The lifeline that we would have been to some people who would have organised to meet at The Book Centre, or just chat with our staff and get book advice is essentially gone, other than people who talk to us on social media. That again, has become much bigger for us. We’re also conscious that a lot of our customers wouldn’t be on social media too though.
Are you connecting with your customers and how have they reacted?
Yes. We have somebody doing an awful lot of work on our social media accounts. We’re developing our website, making lots of changes to it, adding new products to it as well as it is becoming our main focus at the moment. We’re also communicating with people on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram and people have been really great. people that we’ve delivered to or just people who chat with us on social media.
How can communities support local business now?
If people could support us online at thebookcentre.ie that would be fabulous for us to keep us going and keep us open, you know? We’re planning on opening our doors on the 8th of June but who knows what way that’s going to be. We’re still waiting on guidelines from Retail Excellence, you know, how many people we can let into the shop, etc. but it won’t be the same. People will just have to bear with us and be patient. People have been really kind and supportive of us; we just hope they will continue to do that.
How are your staff doing; what are ye doing to keep up morale?
As we are closed, we only have a very small amount of staff working on the website. We have two teams of four working on the website and the administration of the office. I think everybody takes these sorts of things in their own way and deals with things in their own way too, so if people can just accept where they are and keep safe, that’s the most important thing, to be safe in their own environment right now.
People working from home need to remember there’s a cut-off point too, even me, and remember to they take time for themselves and for family – it can’t encompass you. It’s important to keep up your own morale and that of your staff. Be mindful of how you’re spending your time.
You have an online shop already?
Yes, we’re actually upgrading at the moment and in a couple of weeks, we’ll have an even better site than we have now. We’re slowly but surely adding more products. To be honest, it’s always been just books and our schoolbooks but we’ve added a lot of things that people are looking for a lot of at the moment (sharpies, pencils, colouring books,). We’re going to be adding jigsaws, gifts, and adult colouring books soon plus added more staff recommended books to make it easier to shop. Everything is taking a lot of time, it’s all new to us as well. A couple of funny cards (quarantine cards…) up there now, haha!
Has social media been of help to your business?
It’s been a massive help to our business, it’s been driving people to our website to help people bring in money too, and also just to get that communication with customers and see how they grateful they are when we deliver products to them or we answer a query on a book. You know, it’s our lifeline, to be honest.
Do you feel ready to reopen once restrictions are revised or eased?
We are ready and willing to open – absolutely! We have an awful lot of work to do to get our shops ready to make sure that our staff and our customers are safe. There’s a lot of steps to be taken to keep everybody safe. We have a fair idea of what we have to do; there are a lot of things we have to order and buy. Say, the perspex screens that have to go in front of the tills – they all have to be bespoke made. It will be different for people as they walk in the door – gel stations, PPE, you know, numerous things that have to be in place. There’s a lot to organise!
Is there enough information out there for local businesses?
As of yet, I don’t think there is enough, but Retail Excellence are working very closely with the government and they’ve been absolutely fantastic. I am in close contact with them and they have been very good with communication. We have another month before we can open and I’ve no fear that they will have us well-primed and well ready when the time comes. The Chamber, here in Waterford have been very good too.
Have you availed of financial supports?
Yes, absolutely 🙂 The COVID payment has been fantastic. The fact that we can pause bank payments and other payments too. Sure we wouldn’t be able to open back up wiothout these; they’ve been essential really.
Is there anything that the government could do to help you get up and running again?
Well I know there’s been a lot of talks between retail excellence and the government and the general need to stay in business. I know for us it would be that we don’t have to pay rates for the next few months when we open back up because the money just won’t be there, you know? The new normality will be very different from the normality we had back in February, so we just have to be mindful of all the payments we have to make. We would hope that the government would step in and make sure that there are certain ones that they won’t be charging us for.
What’s been the hardest thing for you of all this?
To close the shops is something that we thought would never, ever happen. That I personally would have to make that decision to close a business that has been open for 50 years has been incredible. To see it continue for so long too, it’s been very surreal – like livin’ in a movie! On a personal level, you just have to deal with it and plan. There’s a lot of work being done to open back up safely. Once I’m safe and my family, and my staff’s families are safe, that’s the most important thing.
Go to activity for relaxing during lockdown?
Fresh air and exercise. It’s always been important for me!
If you had one message for your customers, what would it be?
Oh, it would be to thank our customers for all their continued support while we have had our shops been closed and just to say, please continue to be a great support to The Book Centre, whether it be online or when we open back up, to bear with us for the new situation. We need our customers more than ever and we do really appreciate that.