After more than 100 years in business, the Petersfield Bookshop in Hampshire County, England, had perhaps never seen a day quite like Jan. 14.
For the first time that anyone could remember, the independent shop on Petersfield’s Chapel Street did not have a single sale, saddening bookseller Robert Sansom so deeply he decided to tweet about his “tumbleweed” day.
“Not a single book sold today . . .£0.00,” he wrote. “We think this (is) maybe the first time ever.”
After closing up shop that day, Sansom, 48, went home, thinking the 102-year-old secondhand shop specializing in antique and collectible books might have to close permanently, he said.
But overnight, something unexpected happened.
Sansom’s tweet went viral and was retweeted by author Neil Gaiman to his 2.8 million followers, prompting thousands of people to inundate the shop’s website with orders.
The worst day ever quickly turned into the best day ever, said Sansom, who works at the bookstore with owners Ann Westwood, her son, John Westwood, and sales clerk Barbara Kelsey.
“Just reading the messages we have received has brought tears,” he said. “We are really aware of how this was a ‘lightning strike’ – a piece of luck that couldn’t have been planned (when) there are many others struggling along as we were.”
“Civilization was built through books and the telling of stories,” he said. “We’re now actively looking for ways to pay it forward.”
For the past two weeks, Sansom, his co-workers and a small band of volunteers in Petersfield – population 14,372 – have spent 14 hours a day frantically filling hundreds of orders and mailing them to customers around the world.
“People have been so very kind – the last week has been the most intense of my life,” Sansom said.
“One lady, recently back home in the States after a UK holiday, sent us her leftover UK currency,” he said. “One couple drove 460 miles, round-trip, to visit us, and many drove at least an hour or two. Customers were wandering around the shop, asking each other, ‘How far have you come?’ It’s truly been heartwarming.”
On the afternoon he tweeted about his lonely day, he said, a storm had swept into town, bringing steady rain and putting a damper on customers.
“There wasn’t a single penny in the till – not a book was sold to a flesh-and-blood customer,” he said. “Of course we have slow days – everyone does. But that particular week, the shop was facing one of its worse crises ever. Even on a slow day, we would expect to sell 20, 30 or 50 books. We were wondering if we would have to announce the closure of the shop by the end of the week.”
When Sansom learned the next morning that the numbers on his tweet were changing more rapidly than the mileage on an Indy 500 racecar (mainly due to Gaiman’s retweet), he sent out a message of thanks.
“Can we just say ‘thank you’ to @neilhimself,” he tweeted, along with a photo of some of the book orders that were piling up. “People are kind and that’s something to never forget.”
Now that the shop has 21,000 Twitter followers, “we have a voice we didn’t have before,” Sansom added. “Please, go and find your local indie bookshops, new and secondhand, and buy real books from them. If you don’t, they will just close and disappear.”
“You won’t even notice to start with,” he said, “and then you will. And it will be too late.”