With many states banning all but the most essential business in order to slow the spread of the new coronavirus, booksellers are making the case that they, too, are essential. The effort is paying off. Bookstores in numerous states are facing a crush of online sales, offering delivery and pickup to customers, and applying for waivers to keep doing so as public health orders grow more strict.
Riverstone Books in Pittsburgh, Pa., applied for an exemption from a March 19 statewide order to close all businesses that are not “life-sustaining.” On Monday, the bookstore received that exemption and is continuing to take orders while offering curbside and home delivery, along with free shipping.
“We believe books are essential to life,” owner Barbara Jeremiah wrote to customers, informing them of the exemption. Jeremiah said employees remain healthy and are practicing social distancing while fulfilling orders during store hours.
East City Bookshop owner Laurie Gillman and a handful of employees were taking enough online orders at the Washington, D.C. bookstore to keep the business going early this week when a similar closing order came through. On Wednesday, Gillman applied for an exemption from the mayor’s office and her staff was hurriedly preparing to be able to add sidelines to their website and continue online sales.
Navigating health orders in each state is essential for many bookstores’ long-term survival. Early this week, Words Bookstore in Maplewood, N.J. was considering a switch to deliveries while evaluating a statewide order to see if an exemption request was necessary. “We have been flooded with internet orders,” said managing principal Jonah Zimiles.
“Like virtually all bookstores, we don’t have a lot of financial reserves so being closed for any amount of time would impact our ability to survive,” said Eileen McGervey, owner of One More Page books in Arlington, V.A. The store is a co-sponsor of the NoVa Teen Book Festival, which it was forced to cancel earlier this month, but McGervey said online orders have been so substantial that they are helping to offset the loss in sales.
“It is a whole change to the way we do business, as it is for all bookstores,” McGervey said of the influx of onlines sales. “The challenge is how to maintain and communicate with our community when we cannot interact with them in the store.” Thus far, the store’s digital outreach has been a success. 2,000 people viewed an online video posted by the store and McGervey said photos of specific puzzles and games immediately caused a spike in sales.
At Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., owner Janet Geddis is also seeing a jump in online sales, but is already preparing in case circumstances change. “I'm not sure how long business will be brisk so I am sketching out various scenarios depending on what happens in the coming days, weeks, and months,” Geddis said. "I will be emailing my landlord today—he's great but, like me, is a local business owner who is likely feeling pain right now.”
Geddis credits local government with being the linchpin to the store’s initial ability to respond to the crisis. “Our local leadership in Athens-Clarke County has been strong and responsive,” she said. On March 14, she e-mailed her mayor to ask for a meeting and received an immediate response. The two met two days later. “I feel very thankful to have him and our commission here in town,” said Geddis.
Alice Hutchinson of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Ct., lives above her store and it is remaining closed for the time being, in accordance with a statewide order. She will continue to ship books. Like Geddis, Hutchinson said local government has been critically important, providing much-needed guidance.
“I feel the local and state governments are working very hard on our behalf, and deeply care for their communities. The First Selectman (mayor) here in Bethel is a friend of mine and I know he will do whatever he can - he is a responsive, educated and professional leader. I trust him,” said Hutchinson.
Bookstore owners are less praiseworthy of the federal government, and in particular, President Trump. “I am hopeful that scientists keep voicing their concerns and directives because our president goes on ‘feelings’ and does not appear to care if he kills all of us,” said Hutchinson. She was particularly concerned that the federal stimulus package passed by the U.S. Senate would provide support for small businesses and individuals.
As he transitioned his store to online sales this week, Gibson’s Bookstore owner Michael Hermann said his Concord, N.H. store was looking for robust federal action. “What we need most right now is a strong and clear federal plan to cover small businesses’ payroll and rent and allow us to close to the public for as long as it takes to flatten the curve.” said Hermann, who bookstore is a frequent stop for presidential candidates during primaries.
Until then, Hermann said he would look instead to fellow booksellers for inspiration. “Booksellers are some of the smartest and most nimble people in retail, so it’s no surprise that many stores are responding to the crisis in creative ways.”