Lookout Books, the teaching press housed in the creative writing department at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, is partnering with nine indie bookstores all over the country to provide virtual backgrounds free for students – and anyone else without charge – for use in virtual classrooms and video conferences.

A blog on Lookout’s website introduces the project, with thumbnail sketches of each participating bookstore alongside the background photo (s) available for downloading. The images vary: some are of interiors emphasizing book displays, while others are exterior shots, complete with signage identifying the store; one image is of a store's colorful logo.

Participating indies that each have provided Lookout Books with downloadable high-resolution images include Book Soup (West Hollywood, Calif.) Books Are Magic (Brooklyn); Brazos Bookstore (Houston); Hub City Bookshop (Spartanburg, S.C.); Main Street Books (Davidson, N.C.); McNally Jackson (New York City); Tattered Cover (Denver); Vroman’s (Pasadena, Calif.); and White Whale Bookstore (Pittsburgh).

“Having gathered in virtual classrooms with my publishing students for the past six weeks, I’ve become increasingly aware of the privacy concerns when we virtually invite others into our homes,” publisher Emily Smith explained of the project’s genesis. “I’m sure you know someone who joins your Zoom meetings from outer space or a palm-tree covered island, but for many of our students, backgrounds can be more than a joke. They can offer a layer of privacy and help maintain confidentiality around disparities in living situations.”

Smith explained that she and her staff reached out to indies with which they already had some personal connection. “I thought they’d be willing to help out on short notice, so that we could make backgrounds available to students right away,” she said. Noting that "Zoom staging is a thing these days," Michael Chin, Books Are Magic’s event director, provided a simple reason for the bookstore’s participation: “If we can give a spark of joy to anyone, we’re happy to do it,” he said, adding, "And it reminds people that we're still here."

As for Hub City's Rebecca Arrowsmith, she says that she was receptive to participate in the project because "there is something both comforting and grounding about being surrounded by books. Lookout has created a virtual space of that same creativity, warmth, and comfort while we experience a different form of togetherness."

The program is not just for the benefit of students and others wanting to maintain their privacy, Smith maintains: it is also meant to support indie bookstores. “Until we’re able to gather again for readings, book clubs, and of course shopping,” she said, “Lookout is asking folks to use these backgrounds as a way to support indies, and to visit their respective websites for more information about how to sustain them.”

“Many indies continue to host virtual story time for kids, readings, and book launches,” Lookout's blog states, “They fill orders from behind closed storefronts and work twice as hard for a fraction of the income. They’re serving their communities. We recommend purchasing books from them online or curbside (if they’re offering that option), buying a gift card, or making a donation.”

Smith said that other booksellers interested in participating in the program send an email to lookout@uncw.edu and attach a high resolution photo with the photo credit, as well as permission for Lookout to use the photo(s) for this purpose.