Traveling though Chicago’s O’Hare Airport in 2017, on our way to our son’s wedding in the San Juan Islands, I say to my husband, “I have to stop here to buy a Spanx.”
“What’s a Spanx?” Ben asks.
“It’s like a girdle,” I tell him.
In my bag is a slim, silk, azure blue dress to wear, but my boobs are too small to cover my middle-aged stomach. Without trying anything on I buy a couple pairs of underwear and a body suit. Who knew I would wear that Eileen Fisher dress and feel so good, and that three years later Spanx would come to my stores’ aid?
With the onset of the pandemic in March, life in my bookstore changed overnight. Bookstores did not make the list of “essential businesses.” I contacted the state to ask that Connecticut bookstores remain nonessential, but be permitted to continue selling books with the doors locked and minimal staff for curbside pickup, shipping, and delivery. With the state’s okay, two managers, our new bookkeeper, and the event coordinator remained. Over 30 staff were furloughed.
First quarter in New England is habitually slow. This year, we owed thousands of dollars to our vendors. We asked publishers to hold shipments and cancel all forthcoming orders for spring and summer. A few other booksellers and I wrote a letter to the five major publishers in New York with a list of asks: better terms, longer dating on invoices, forgiveness of debt, and much more.
Life was tense. Fridays were especially tough. I looked back on each week wondering what I did. I delivered books in neighborhoods I never knew existed. If I didn’t walk for miles every morning, I couldn’t focus that day. Reviewing canceled summer orders was so depressing, looking at books that I loved but weren’t going to sell. My staff were exhausted, heading to burnout, working in the store with lights off and music on, just trying to keep up. Conversations with my bookkeeper were tough. She didn’t see how we were going to make it through this. Neither did I. I googled how to declare bankruptcy. I have two bookstores. What would I do if we could save one store and not the other? Which one would we save?
We needed every cent we could find to make it through this crisis. We missed the first round of the Payroll Protection Plan payments, but did receive one in the second round. And then there were the SBA Disaster Loans and Economic Injury Disaster Loans. I pulled together P&Ls, personal financial statements, guarantees, and credit reports. One store received the $10,000 EIDL grant; the other store didn’t. Bank Square Books received $34,000 from the CT Emergency Bridge Recovery Loan at 0% interest for 12 months. Savoy Bookshop & Café received an SBA Disaster Loan for $129,400. Where that amount came from, we aren’t sure, but at 3.75% for 30 years we can deal.
The SBA declined Bank Square Books’ Disaster Loan application, stating that we “had no economic injury.” We were told that “it must just be a hiccup.” I recalled meeting the interim director of the SBA for Connecticut and Rhode Island last fall; as he shook my hand, he had said, “Let me know what we can do for you.” I called him. He said because I am the owner of both bookstores, and despite being separate legal entities, the SBA was under the assumption only one store with the same owner would qualify. But after he looked into it, $149,900 was deposited into our account.
Meanwhile, I was negotiating rent with our Mystic landlords in April, and one of them told me about a grant that the founder of Spanx was offering. Sara Blakely, who’d started Spanx with $5,000 in savings, was offering 1,000 grants of $5,000 each to women-owned businesses through the Red Backpack Fund. We applied. Why not? When we received an email saying that we’d been awarded a $5,000 grant, I was overwhelmed. The money came, along with a red Herschel backpack that will make me smile each time it sits on my back.
The world now looks a little brighter. If I miss my walk or take a shorter one, I still feel okay. The salt water is now warm enough to swim. Zoom calls with other bookstore owners in Wichita, Kans.; South Hadley, Mass.; New York; and San Francisco keep us all going.
We are in business. Staff are back. Without them, our stores would not be here. The stores are open—with limited capacity, masks required, sanitized hall passes to keep track of how many customers are in the store—and things feel “quasi-normal.” Sales are stable. Web orders are 10 times what they were for 2019. Customers appreciate our diligence about keeping people safe. We will wear our masks, squirt sanitizer, wash our hands, and continue placing books into the hands of our loyal customers however we can.
Annie Philbrick is the owner of Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I., and Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn.