Josh Cook is a bookseller, marketing director, and co-owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., where he has worked since 2004.
Even successful small businesses rarely have a lot of cash on hand. Among small businesses, bookstores tend to operate on a thin profit margin, so even though we are keeping the lights on, we need money coming in constantly to stay afloat. This is why recessions hit bookstores hard. We don't have the extra cash to pay bills, rent, and employees if our income drops significantly or stops completely for three weeks, a month, or two months. For that reason, whether from social distancing, an actual quarantine, or a more general economic downturn, the new coronavirus presents a real challenge to bookstores.
Here are some ways you can help keep your local bookstore open—during a coronavirus outbreak and after—without leaving the house.
Step 1. Sign Up for Their Newsletter and Follow Them on Social Media
If your store needs to launch a GoFundMe, appeals for community investors, or sells special memberships, you'll want to know about it. Signing up for their newsletter and following them on social media right now means you won’t hear about your store closing in three months because a rescue campaign didn’t get enough traction.
Step 2. Pre-Order Books Online
You know that book you want that's coming out in August? September? Ordering it during a downturn doesn't cost you any more than you planned to spend, and paying now gives the store cash when they need it.
Step 3. Order More Than What’s on Our Shelves
Many stores can actually have books shipped directly to you from a warehouse. For example, any book on portersquarebooks.com, where I work, with an inventory status of "Available at Warehouse" can be sent directly to you. This is true for many indies around the country. Just pay with a credit card—this particular system doesn’t use PayPal.
This isn’t standard procedure for many stores, who like to interact with customers, even if it is just through the packaging, so make sure to add a note that says, “Fulfill from the warehouse if possible.” The other advantage to warehouse fulfillment is booksellers can process these orders from home. They just need to click a button.
Step 4. Listen to Digital Audiobooks Through Libro.fm
Many indie bookstores sell digital audiobooks through Libro.fm. You can buy specific audiobooks or get a monthly membership. The files are DRM-free so you actually own them. Libro pays quarterly which can be a challenge for stores, but digital audiobooks represent cash coming in that no one needs to leave the house for.
Step 5. Buy E-books
Many bookstores sell e-books, which are another great "nobody has to touch anything" source of income.
Step 6. Buy a Gift Card
Maybe you don't have anything you want to buy now, but still want to support the store. Buy a gift card online. Think of this as a no-interest loan that will give the store income when they need it.
Step 7. Donate to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc)
Binc helps booksellers impacted by natural disasters, health problems, higher education, etc. They are currently working with the American Booksellers Association to come up with a strategy to help booksellers affected by COVID-19.
Step 8. Support the Booksellers
The biggest challenge for many stores will be payroll. Obviously, it is difficult to pay employees when no money is coming in, but many booksellers do other things too. They are writers, teachers, artists, and podcasters. They might have a SoundCloud or a Patreon, or a Ko-fi. Search the bookstore on Twitter and see who else pops up. Some kind of extra income will help booksellers stay with the store even if the store cannot pay them. This helps the store retain the knowledgeable, talented staff that make it so important to you.
Step 9. Stock Up Now
Books are, of course, shelf-stable, and cash is (as ever) still cash. Further, for many stores, March is when sales start to pick up after the post-Christmas drop of winter, so losing sales now could be especially challenging for many stores. If you do not have a big old to be read pile, most stores have staff picks online that will give you great recommendations.
Step 10. Local Activism
If you are really motivated, get in touch with your local and state governments. Do they have plans to support small businesses during a quarantine and recession? If they do not, shouldn't they? Politicians talk a big game about small business being the backbone of the economy but almost never actually put any money into that backbone. Maybe now is a good time to start.