To find out how children’s booksellers are doing four months after the coronavirus outbreak upended the economy and business as usual, PW spoke with booksellers and owners at bookstores whose staff it has sponsored, or planned to sponsor this year, to go to Children’s Institute.
When they were homeschooling their four children, Jeffrey and Pamela Blair were frustrated that they couldn’t find books in which their kids could see themselves. So Pamela wrote three books of her own featuring Black children and launched EyeSeeMe in 2011 to sell multicultural books online. Four years later, the Blairs opened a bricks-and-mortar bookstore, EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore in University City, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis.
This summer the bookstore is on its firmest footing ever, but that almost didn’t happen. Last year the store moved to a larger location with an events space, and the Blairs hoped for an increase in revenue. But holiday sales were not as strong as the couple had anticipated, and neither were sales this past February for Black History Month. Then came the pandemic in March.
“As the coronavirus hit, we just saw the calendar go overnight,” Jeffrey says. “We thought, how do we recover from that? That business is not coming back.” All of the store’s school events and book fairs were canceled.
Reluctantly, the Blairs launched a GoFundMe campaign asking customers for Covid-19 help and applied for the Paycheck Protection Program. The store received the loan, and to date the Blairs have raised more than $33,000. They used the money to boost their online presence, just as protests over the killing of George Floyd led to a resurgence in community support. By mid-June the store had not yet reopened for foot traffic, but with the bigger online presence the Blairs’ daily sales were higher than in the months leading up to the outbreak.
Jeffrey says he feels honored that so many new customers understand the purpose and importance of having a vibrant Black-owned children’s bookstore in the St. Louis area. “People don’t come because of the price,” he says. “They come because they see it as being part of the community, being a neighbor. They see it as a vision. As terrible as it is, all that has happened, there is such a silver lining in that.”
When the pandemic hit, business also skidded to a halt for Wishing Tree Books, a children’s specialty bookstore in Spokane, Wash. Janelle Smith opened the store with her husband, Ivan Smith, last year after working as a bookseller for more than 20 years.
Smith was disappointed to have to close her store to foot traffic during the shutdown but has continued to meet her financial needs thanks in part to rent relief from her landlord, Tegan Tigani, with whom she worked at Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle.
Despite the temporary closure, Smith has continued to support community causes, such as one led by local author Sarah Bain, who honors her stillborn daughter with a charity event each year. This spring, to mark the 17th anniversary of her death, Bain held a 17-day fund-raiser to buy books for children of color. Smith raised $1,200 for the campaign and will use the money to buy books for children in the public school system.
Smith has been using social media to reach people interested in reading a wider and more diverse set of books in the wake of the Floyd protests, and customers have also been coming to her. Recently, students and families approached her about buying a small library of multicultural titles as a gift for their teacher at the end of the school year. One favorite book that has emerged is Maddie Frost and Amy Pixton’s My Neighborhood, part of Workman’s Indestructible Books series.
The new normal
In St. Petersburg, Fla., Tombolo Books, which began as a pop-up several years ago and opened a bricks-and-mortar location last December, started slowly reopening in early June, with limited store hours. During the coronavirus shutdown, the store did bicycle deliveries, but bookseller Amanda Hurley has been excited about selling books in person.
As she looks toward the fall selling season, Hurley is buying children’s books with the idea that online sales may still be the larger source of the store’s income. “I’ve been picking books that don’t have to be seen to be sold,” she says. She cites titles such as I Am Every Good Thing by Derrick Barnes, illustrated by Gordon C. James; The Invisible Alphabet by Joshua David Stein, illustrated by Ron Barrett; and Raybearer by Jordan Ifueko, which did well during the pandemic.
At the same time, the event-focused bookstore has begun holding digital events with local authors as a way to stay in touch with readers. Its first one with Rob Sanders, author of the picture book The Fighting Infantryman, took place in mid-June.
Hurley is optimistic that the change to a partially online, partially in-person retail operation will work because of the adaptiveness of independent bookstores. “I think we’re sort of setting the tone and being leaders in that way,” she says. “It’s another new normal.”