As states relax their provisions to cope with the spread of Covid-19, bookstores will begin to reopen. The logistical questions bookstores face are myriad, including how to keep their spaces disinfected, how to restock even as the supply chain shows strain, which hours to open, and how to manage interactions between customers and staff to maintain proper social distancing, particularly when staff are handselling titles.
But according to longtime industry consultant Donna Paz, one of the biggest challenges facing bookstores is more abstract. “I think the hardest question bookstores will face is how to rebuild their teams,” she said.
Paz runs Paz & Associates, a bookstore training organization launched in 1992 that has mentored hundreds of booksellers. She is also a bookseller herself, having opened Story & Song on Amelia Island, Fla., in 2018. The store has a core team of five, plus herself and her husband, Mark Kaufmann; many share duties between the store and an integrated bistro.
Because Amelia Island is small, it has suffered only a handful of Covid-19 cases, Paz said, adding, “We’re not exactly Daytona.” Accordingly, the bookstore has continued to offer curbside pickup through the pandemic.
“It’s double the work for half as many sales, but we are grateful to be able to serve our customers—especially those with school aged children at home,” Paz said. “We know how lucky we are and are adjusting.”
Last week in particular was good for Story & Song, as it was taking in numerous phone orders for David Baldacci’s Walk the Wire (Grand Central) and John Grisham’s Camino Winds (Doubleday). “Both authors have homes on the island and are very popular here,” Paz explained.
Paz said the difficulties for indie bookstores as they begin to reopen will be just as existential and cultural as they are practical. “For a start, it is important for everyone to be open and honest and acknowledge that there is likely to be a change in the dynamic between management and staff members based on views of how to handle the pandemic on an individual as well as business level. First and foremost, everyone wants to feel safe, yet there is a need to remain visible and be ready to reengage.”
The decision of whether and when to reopen each store will have to be made by the owner; that of whether or not to return to work, if given the opportunity, will have to be made by the employees, some of whom may still feel at risk and/or not want to forego unemployment benefits for reduced hours and increased exposure to the virus.
As bookstore owners begin asking people to return, Paz noted, they will face some difficult decisions. “It’s not likely that the business is going to snap back immediately to where it was before the pandemic, and so stores will not need as many employees—and those they do have may well have pared-back schedules. So the question facing owners is who to hire back.”
Here, Paz said, is where owners need to prioritize who is most vital and how many payroll hours the store will be able to cover. “These decisions are never taken lightly, and they are not going to be easy for anyone,” she added.
An even bigger question may be which booksellers are loyal, Paz said. Though the concept of loyalty can be ambiguous, it is perhaps easier to define by omission. “Everyone is anxious and emotions are raw when life is at risk,” she noted, but the key factor is how each employee has responded to the crisis. “Who has showed up? Who worked from home? Who brought ideas to the table? There is going to be a kind of bonding that will have happened among those who found a way to show up and work their way through the crisis. It’s only human nature.”
The implication, of course, is that employees who didn’t do these things may be recalled later, depending on the staffing needs of the store.
In the near term, Paz said she, like everyone, hopes the pandemic ends quickly and with a minimum of suffering and loss of life. “Yet,” she added, “if anyone should be able to benefit from people being sequestered, it really should be the book business.”