For independent booksellers across the U.S. the transition could not have been swifter or starker. In less than a week, brisk early March sales at bookstores in many regions have given way to temporary closures in response to the widening effects of the new coronavirus outbreak.
Newtonville Books, in Newton, Mass. was among the first stores to announce a temporary closure in an e-mail to customers on Friday, March 13. The store will remain closed until the end of March. “Closing the bookstore was the socially responsible thing to do, not just for our community but also for our staff,” said co-owner Mary Cotton. “Extrapolating ahead, it’s clear that the message is everything should be closed for two weeks to try to stunt the spread of COVID-19”
“It’s a hard decision,” Cotton added, "one made easier by the horrifying thought of someone coming into the bookstore and getting infected." On Sunday evening, Massachusetts Governor Charlie Baker announced the closure of all retail businesses that hold more than 25 people in a room at a given time.
Many of the steps Cotton took were echoed in an e-mail to American Booksellers Association member stores by CEO Allison Hill (and posted to the ABA website), including contacting her landlord. “They’ve signaled that they’re willing to talk with us about what’s best, which was reassuring,” Cotton said.
Literati Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, Mich., followed another ABA recommendation, urging customers to support the store online. In an e-mail announcing a temporary closure on Friday, co-owners Mike and Hilary Gustafson asked customers to buy books from the store online. Thus far, the request has paid off enormously for the store. “We usually get five to 10 web orders a day,” said Mike Gustafson. “In the past three days, we have gotten more than 700. Our community is rallying. It feels like a scene from an old movie. We are so grateful, but we also know that we have a long and potentially perilous road ahead.”
On Sunday, Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill.north of Chicago and Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, Minn. announced that they were going to also close their doors indefinitely due to public health concerns but would fulfill online orders and offer curbside pickup for locals. "We are trying to balance our responsibility to keep our customers and our staff from unnecessary exposure with our commitment to keeping our staff employed and our business protected from financial catastrophe," Bookends and Beginnings owner Nina Barrett wrote in an email to customers. Seminary Co-op Bookstores in Chicago and Milkweed Books in Minneapolis's Open Book literary complex are also closed indefinitely.
RiverRun Bookstore in Portsmouth, N.H., and Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., both offered customers curbside pickup for their orders. Square Books in Oxford, Miss., remained open, but encouraged readers to take precautions, and began offering incentives like free delivery for orders within a five-mile radius of Oxford. And A Room of One's Own in Madison, Wis. will be open only four hours, noon to 4 p.m. every day.
East City Bookshop, in Washington D.C., also remained open through the weekend, but owner Laurie Gillman plans to close the store to browsing on Monday. The largest impact on the store thus far has been event cancellations. The store's planned event schedule included large events and bulk sales for a conference. All have been canceled. “Those things really hurt us, but we’re hopeful,” said Gillman. The store had healthy sales in 2019 and can withstand some financial interruption, but, “it depends on how long we all need to stay out of our regular lives,” said Gillman.
Like Square Books, Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn remained open, and sales were strong over the weekend. After polling her staff about who wanted to work and who did not, co-owner Rebecca Fitting has adjusted store hours and asked administrative staff to begin working remotely.
“Times like this can bring out the best (and the worst) in people,” said Fitting. In the store’s flagship location on Saturday, she said, “there was so much kindness and consideration going round.” A customer and Kindergarten teacher approached Fitting about filming a storytime from the store, which is one of the steps she will be taking to reach customers who are staying home.
Fitting was monitoring state and federal responses closely throughout the weekend to gauge next steps. “We have a responsibility to our staff in particular that we're not taking lightly, but if we shut down, I'm not sure how we can fulfill that responsibility,” she said.
The Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) reassured booksellers that the organization is able to provide limited financial assistance for those who become ill or are unable to work due to a mandatory quarantine, and urged booksellers to ask for help if they need it.
In a combined matching gift challenge, Writers House agent Steven Malk and Boston-based Beacon Press committed to match donations to Binc up to $12,500. “Booksellers are the lifeblood of our business, and it’s incumbent upon all of us in the publishing community to do what we can to help protect them and ensure their ongoing success during times of crisis,” Malk said in a statement.
The one constant emerging across the bookselling trade is that regular communication will be one of the most important ways that bookstores persevere under increasingly challenging circumstances. “Please reach out if there is anything we can do to help,” said ABA CEO Hill. “We are an incredibly creative, resilient, supportive industry. We’ll get through this, together.”
Judith Rosen contributed reporting to this article.