While cold weather affected a huge swath of the U.S. this past week, Midwestern booksellers were hit especially hard by the polar vortex. Temperatures plummeted to subzero levels: Norris Camp, Minn., was the coldest city in the U.S. on Wednesday, reporting an air temperature of 48 degrees below zero, while, on Thursday, Cotton, Minn. reported a 56 degrees below zero air temperature.
Due to the dangerous cold, and with authorities asking people to stay indoors, many of the Midwestern bookstores PW queried shut their doors on Wednesday, while several others simply set shorter hours. While most of the stores reported sales being down this week due to the extreme weather, all of the booksellers PW spoke with put a positive spin on an unfortunate situation, explaining that these past few days have provided them with an opportunity to catch up on tasks that too often are pushed aside during busier times.
“It’s been a miserable week,” Nina Barrett, the owner of Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Ill., said, reporting that she closed her store all day Wednesday and Thursday morning. “[Loss of sales[ has been significant. But I feel philosophical about it: January is always rough. The silver lining is that we always get administrative things done. So, it’s been a devastating loss in sales, but I don’t feel devastated. We may not make it up next week, but we’ll make it up sometime.”
Lisa Baudoin, the owner of Books & Company in Oconomowoc, Wisc., said that the store shut its doors on Monday, due to a snowstorm while she was still enroute from Albuquerque and WI14. On Wednesday, however, the store opened its doors from 8:00 a.m to 3 p.m. only because she “lives the closest and has a garage” and could thus make it to work, albeit solo. “I had phone calls and customers,” she said, but sales are down 50% this week and a reading by Nick Petrie, who lives in Milwaukee, that was scheduled for Wednesday evening was re-scheduled for next week.
“It could have been worse,” Baudoin said, “ it could have happened during the holidays.”
Book Table in Oak Park, Ill., also stayed open on Wednesday, but bookseller Bianca Walters reported “super slow” sales, with only four customers the entire day. “But we had a great holiday season,” they said, “This January slump in comparison to last year’s is way more welcome.”
While her store kept normal hours all week, Kate Rattenborg, the owner of Dragonfly Books in Decorah, Iowa, reported that sales are down 50%. A frozen water pipe that burst in the building further complicates matters by driving up expenses beyond the usual cost of doing business.
Fortunately, she says, most of the water hit cardboard packing material waiting to be recycled.
“I own the building, so repair work is my responsibility and I have yet to see what the emergency, after-hours repair costs will be,” she said, “During a normal week, I’d be able to recoup some of those costs from the week’s sales, but with snowy weather on Monday and frigid temperatures since, sales are abysmal.”
Rattenborg says she kept the store open, primarily to “babysit the building” and to monitor inside temperatures so as to prevent any other disasters.
“I won’t know the true financial impact until I receive water, heating, and plumbing bills,” she said, noting that it’s not just a lack of foot traffic affecting sales: UPS on Thursday resumed deliveries that it had suspended earlier in the week; special orders were finally delivered but have yet to be picked up and paid for.
Several bookstores reported that sales were especially brisk on Tuesday, as people prepared for Wednesday’s further drop in temperatures, so that closing their stores on Wednesday didn’t really impact the bottom line. “People knew what was coming,” Judith Kissner, the owner of Scout & Morgan Books in Cambridge, Minn., reported on Thursday, adding that while the store was closed Wednesday due to weather for the first time in 17 years, when the air temperature was -32 degrees, customers returned on Thursday when it rose to -11. “Minnesotans are tough, “ she said.
Further north, in Duluth, Minn. Nikki Silvestrini, the manager at Zenith Bookstore reported that the store closed its doors on Wednesday “because it was just too cold” and also re-scheduled for next week a reading by Brian Freeman, who lives in the Twin Cities. “We had regular hours on Tuesday, and people were coming in, “ she said, adding that on Wednesday, someone posted on Facebook their disappointment that they had gone to the store only to find that it was closed. “Some people would brave it, no matter how cold it gets,” she said.
Greg Zandbroz of Zandbroz Variety in Fargo, N. Dak., said that the store stayed open all week, but with shorter hours on Wednesday. Noting that schools and businesses were closed all over the city, and that “there were some people stranded at hotels,” Zandbroz reported that he “sold a few books, and that’s good. We have to come in and shovel anyway, and some people came out.”
In contrast to the other booksellers PW spoke with, who reported losses, two Minneapolis booksellers reported better sales this week over last year, even though, like many other stores, both shut their doors on Wednesday. “It was way brisker Tuesday than usual,” Hans Weyandt, the manager of Milkweed Editions Bookstore in the Open Book building said. “That evened it out.” Angela Schwesnedl, the co-owner of Moon Palace Books added that even though the store closed early on Tuesday and all day on Wednesday, the Super Bowl took place in Minneapolis this time last year, and that had more of a negative impact on sales than this week’s weather.
“Plus, there’s this,” she wrote in an email, attaching a screen shot of a customer’s tweet declaring, "It might be -31 real feel in Minneapolis, but nothing is going to stop me from getting my favorite pizza at my favorite bookstore, Moon Palace. If I lose a toe, it was worth it.”