By Maureen Lee Lenker
April 13, 2020 at 04:36 PM EDT
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Courtesy Lark & Owl Booksellers

The only thing certain right now is uncertainty — and if you happen to run an independent bookstore, that rings perhaps even more true.

With less time for socializing and cultural events outside the home, it should be a great time for books (unless you’re simply too stressed and unable to focus on reading — in which case, we understand). But that doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great time for bookstores who are closing their doors and being asked to re-think their business in fundamental ways.

“I don't think anyone becomes a bookseller because they think the profit margin [will] make them rich,” quips Amy Kane, owner of Haines, Alaska’s succinctly named The Bookstore. “We're all thoughtful people and we're doing it because we care about books and what they mean to us and what they mean to our community.”

The New Reality

Nationwide, many shops have closed as a result of shelter-in-place orders or an abundance of caution. Even if stores are still open, they’re faced with cancellations from publishers and authors. Normally a home for book clubs, author signings, and book tours, now they must face business without mass gatherings or author travel. Many have been forced to cancel annual festivals that account for large percentages of their yearly income.

“Bookstores focus on being a community meeting place, and we differentiate ourselves from online by having author events and book discussions,” says Eileen McGervey who owns One More Page Books in Arlington, Virginia. “The very things that distinguish us right now we cannot do.”

Courtesy One More Page Books

The safety net for stores widely varies depending on the store itself, and how long they’ve been around. From the most established and venerated shops (New York City’s Strand Bookstore, Portland’s Powell’s Books) to new stores like Kane’s The Bookstore, which was open a week and one day before quarantine measures hit, everyone is facing tough decisions.

The Strand and New York’s McNally Jackson have laid off the majority of their employees as stores shutter. Powell’s Books did the same; though they have since re-hired 100 workers to meet the demand for online orders. Culver City’s The Ripped Bodice, which has a small staff of five, says they plan to pay their employees as long as they can.

Kane’s store had its grand opening March 6, before closing on March 14. She’d barely opened and is now rushing to get her inventory online. “I'm hoping that I can still provide books to the folks at least here in the community, and I'm having to brainstorm and completely re-envision, my whole business model,” Kane explains. “I have a bit of a learning curve to get my online presence more robust. At this point, I've been focusing so much on just getting the doors open that I have a website but it's basically [the store info].”

Courtesy The Bookstore

Love’s Sweet Arrow, a romance-focused bookshop in the Chicago suburb of Tinley Park, is similarly nervous about what this could mean for their brand. Their one-year anniversary isn’t until June 15. “We’re still building our base,” reflects co-founder Roseann Backlin. Adds her daughter and business partner, Marissa: “We started with a very small amount of money, and we put our profit back into the store so we don't pay ourselves yet, because we can't afford to. You just hear all the time that places fail without something like this in their first year. The odds are really stacked against us.”

Searching for Solutions

Courtesy Love's Sweet Arrow

So how might readers and communities keep their local indies afloat? There are straightforward ways: buy a gift card or order books online through the store’s website. Many stores are currently offering extremely reduced or free shipping. (Anyone who wants to pre-order a book online can check their local indie before Amazon, especially since Amazon has now seriously delayed the shipping of non-essential items including books.) Depending on a store’s ordering system, they may not see pre-order money until the book actually ships and if your goal is to help them now, it won’t do the trick.

If your local store doesn't have their own online shop, Bookshop.org is making it easier than ever to support them by linking sales and profit sharing with the indie bookstore of your choice.

There’s also options patrons might not have considered before: joining a store’s Patreon or using Libro.fm, a site that splits the profits of audiobook sales with the indie bookstore of your choosing. Jane Estes, founder of Lark and Owl Booksellers in Georgetown, Texas, also suggests donating to BINC, an emergency fund the American Booksellers Association maintains.

Courtesy Lark & Owl Booksellers

Still, many fear losing the option to browse could negatively impact sales. “They say that 60 to 70 percent of the people that walk into a bookstore don't have a specific book in mind,” McGervey explains. “They're looking to see what's there and how do you do that when somebody can't come into the store? How do we keep that discovery and exploration aspect of it open?”

Beyond a sales aspect, bookstores also keenly feel the role they play in their communities. They’re a gathering ground, an escape, and a safe space. McGervey stresses the need to fill this gap for families most at risk during the crisis. One More Page Books has been donating books to local schools for pick-up alongside daily meals to help provide for the literary needs of the community. “[There can’t] be an even bigger divide between people who can afford to buy books and people who can’t,” she says.

Courtesy One More Page Books

As for those customers with more spending power, stores are turning to their digital newsletters and social media more than ever. Book clubs are moving online to Facebook, Zoom, and YouTube. Authors are using booksellers’ Instagram pages to do live talks promoting their new releases. Part of this is arising from a need to maintain the communal spirit of bookstores, but also a desire to help support authors who might also be struggling with the cancelation of book tours and the loss of valuable face-to-face time with readers.

Colleen Ellis, a book buyer at Lark and Owl Booksellers, says they’re actively brainstorming ways to promote new books on release days remotely. She’s hopeful this might help more localized events reach a bigger audience. Lark and Owl had planned on partnering with the Texas Institute of Letters as part of the school’s annual literary event; the store has already purchased the inventory for it, and is brainstorming ways to make it remotely accessible, perhaps broadening its reach.

A Boxed-Up Future

Courtesy The Ripped Bodice

Booksellers also have to find ways to promote titles that can really provide customers the same sense of face-to-face recommendations they might get in stores. One burgeoning space for that is book boxes. The Ripped Bodice now is offering a care package that gives online customers the chance to buy gift items and other things not traditionally on offer through their website. Similarly, Love’s Sweet Arrow is offering Surprise Boxes, One More Page is developing their version of a subscription box, and Lark and Owl is implementing a Brown Bag book service. All of these programs are based around a larger shipment of books and potential gift items/bookstore swag, often hand-selected by booksellers based on the customer’s preferences.

There’s a definite interest in these services as part of a larger push to support the bookstores. Since The Ripped Bodice announced their Care Package initiative on March 13, they’ve packed over 475  boxes and have over 800 people on a waiting list to order. Emily Hall Schroen of Main Street Books says in one 24-hour period they received more online orders than the last two months combined. Checking in with stores, most say they’re flooded with a demand for books right now, but are still fearsome it won’t ultimately replace in-store sales.

Courtesy Storefront

Predominantly, they worry this level of support will flag the longer this goes on. “People are really making a point to support us, which is so incredible,” says The Ripped Bodice’s co-founder Leah Koch. “My concern is, Are they still going to be doing that five weeks from now?”

The answer might lie in constant re-invention. As things change at lightning speed, McGervey is trying to see it as an opportunity for booksellers. “It’s a whole new paradigm right now,” she explains. “A lot of indies didn’t make it through [the Amazon boom], but the ones that did really had to change how they did business. This might be like that – we all have to step back and break the mold of what we’ve be doing.”

Perhaps we’ll all have to steal a page from their book.

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