As bookstores begin to slowly reopen across some parts of the U.S., Shane Gottwals has some advice to share. "I would emphasize that anyone talking to employees about returning to work first emphasize the health, safety, and concerns of those employees first and foremost, before any financial considerations," he said. Gottwals runs four Gottwals Books locations in central Georgia and oversees 12 Walls of Books franchise locations in Iowa, Kansas, Florida, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, and Washington. He directly employs 21 people in the stores he owns.
Gottwals reopened two of his Georgia stores on Monday—the flagship location in Warner Robins and the store in Macon—after hanging clear shower curtains from the ceiling in front of the cash wraps, in lieu of plexiglass, which would not fit, as well as copious signage reminding people about appropriate social distancing. "It pains me, because I'm very particular about the look of our stores, but it is a very small concession to make," said Gottwals, who added that he did not advertise he was reopening. "We have a core group of customers who were coming by every so often. So we just put signs on the doors of the two stores saying they could come in and shop. It's really these dedicated customers we want anyway—most of them are older and will spend $40 or $50 in a visit and they are the one's who keep us afloat." All employees are being provided with face masks and the stores are being disinfected after every customer. In addition, at any point an employee feels the store is getting too crowded, they are allowed to clear the store and lock the door until a time when there are no excess customers. Hours for the stores have been reduced to 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
When it came to staffing the stores, Gottwals confronted the main issue many store owners will have to address in the coming weeks through a series of meetings. "Human resources issues have actually occupied two to three weeks of my time," said Gottwals, who explained that as the coronavirus spread prior to closing the stores last month he held a series of staff meetings to discuss the closure and what would happen.
"Those were some of the most difficult conversations I have ever had in my professional life. Six of my employees were irate and told me to close the stores because they were fearful of their health, with one of them accusing me of actually trying to kill his wife, who has asthma, by suggesting he still come to work," said Gottwals. "When you are confronted with language like that, it is very difficult. Our stores are small and I have always tried to foster a family atmosphere, so hearing that was quite hard."
Once the stores were closed, employees were moved to the company's warehouse, packing and shipping books. Used books represents 90% of Gottwals' sales and the chain has seen a surge in some areas. "Our sales through third-party retailers has tripled in recent weeks" said Gottwals. In addition, the chain has offered customized packages of $50 of books for for $35, with the titles selected by Gottwals based on a questionnaire taken by the customer. "We have sold more than 500 of those packages," said Gottwals, who also said the stores launched a Bookshop.org site, but has not made it a priority.
With yesterday's reopening of the two stores, Gottwals said 10 employees were willing to work in the stores; the remaining 11 declined and will continue working in the warehouse and in other capacities. Those working in the stores will get a $15 bonus per shift. "Most of the employees are making somewhat less than that per hour — so it amounts to about $100 extra per week," explained Gottwals.
Looking ahead, Gottwals said that his experience dealing with the pandemic suggests that the relationships between booksellers and employees is likely to evolve and become even more intimate. "I think that it is going to force a lot of very difficult conversations between owners and staff and that the naivete that people are in the bookselling business entirely because of some form of idealism, because of a love for literature, is going to have to disappear. At the end of the day, it is a business and if we don't stay in business, there will be no jobs. That said, every relationship is improved by having these sorts of difficult relationships. We are all going to be closer because of the hard things we have had to say to each other."
Half Price Books Plans Reopening Steps
Half-Price Books, America's largest used bookstore chain, is looking at reopening stores in Arizona, Oklahoma, Texas, and Ohio throughout the month of May, some as early as Saturday. The chain operates 126 stores in 17 states, which were closed on March 18.
When the stores reopen, all employees will wear masks and customers will be encouraged to maintain social distancing and wear masks indoors as well, said Emily Bruce, public relations manager for the company. The chain will limit the number of shoppers allowed in the store at one time based on the store size and in accordance with local guidelines. In addition, Bruce said that in one of the future phases of the company's reopening plan, "we will begin buying merchandise from our customers, as this may require additional operational adjustments, including adding back staff members."
On April 2, the company laid off or furloughed 2,146 people, representing 78% of its workforce of 2,752. Yesterday, a GoFundMe campaign was launched by former employees and is seeking $250,000 to help out-of work booksellers from the company. The campaign page lists a series of grievances. "In the following weeks, Half Price Books has treated us with shocking disregard- ignoring the layoffs on all social media, disregarding requests for more information including the criteria for termination, and providing misinformation about the ending of benefits," wrote the campaign organizer Laura Campbell.
Kathy Doyle Thomas, chief strategy officer, for Half Price replied to the criticism. She said, “The Covid-19 pandemic has negatively affected retail sales like nothing we’ve seen in our lifetimes. Like most retailers across the country, Half Price Books had to make unthinkable decisions in order to make sure we could survive and rebuild those jobs in the near future, and unfortunately that meant layoffs for many employees. We’ve made sure that our Human Resources department and corporate office remained open to take calls on a special hotline and answer any questions people have had, and we hope those affected have used that resource. We wish these employees well and certainly understand their need to access any resources they can during this devastating time.”
The campaign raised $850 in its first day.