As states establish reopening timelines and Covid-19 infection rates continue to rise in various parts of the country, bookstores are not reopening in any conventional sense—nor do many owners intend to. PW reached out to 22 bookstore owners across the U.S. to assess their plans for the month ahead, their April sales, and the issues they hope publishers will take up in order to support their businesses during a challenging time.
Of the stores contacted, only one has reopened for limited browsing. Of the remaining 21 stores, only one intends to allow limited browsing in the coming weeks. The remaining stores are continuing at their own pace, offering online ordering and, at most, curbside pickup.
“We reopened on May 4 because the governor gave the green light for the whole state, and everyone else around us seemed to be opening, even gyms and hair salons,” said a mountain state bookstore owner who requested anonymity. “While there have been a lot more cases up north, there have been only 138 cases, 13 hospitalizations, and two deaths in our region. So we opened, and are being extra careful, sanitizing between purchases, allowing no more than six customers in at a time, and wearing masks.”
To keep going, this bookstore received local government assistance, in the form of a regional no-interest loan that covered two months of rent and $1,200 in inventory, all of which the owner said is necessary to keep the store open.
Elsewhere, other booksellers are not reopening to in-store customers, even when given the opportunity. “Connecticut has been given the green light to partially reopen on May 20. We are not going to do so,” said Alice Hutchinson of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Ct. “Ours is a high-touch business and there are many safety measures that will not work in our situation. We will continue to provide curbside pick-up and phone and doorway consultations and sales. Online sales continue to be an option, and have increased.”
Categories of books that sold best last month were fiction, cookbooks, and children’s books, but compared with April 2019, sales were largely down at the indies contacted. Most saw declines of more than 35% compared to the same period in the prior year. For many, online sales continue to be a lifeline, especially direct-to-home orders fulfilled by Ingram. “Curbside pickup sales were nominal, but in the month of April we did 3,005 direct-to-home transactions, for a total of $221,995,” said Rebecca Fitting, co-owner of Greenlight Books in New York City.
Due to lower margins, Fitting said, “we make less on every dollar, yet we are still selling a significant number of books for publishers. Sure, if independents weren't selling through direct-to-home, people could find books elsewhere. But I'm very sure book sales would decrease a lot further than they have without our channel's efforts.”
While many booksellers hailed the book business's overall response to the coronavirus, Fitting and others emphasized a widely-expressed desire to see additional support from publishers on terms and dating. “I hope that bookstores and larger publishers can develop a formula to amortize pre-March invoices over the 2-3 years it will take to develop vaccines and treatments for Covid-19, rather than simply re-dating invoices and having each store negotiating on its own,” said Michael Herrmann of Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H.
Chris Abouzeid of Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., called for even more innovative steps. Abouzeid called on publishers to consider working with booksellers to create an independent booksellers credit union. “The union would be able to provide low-interest loans to independent booksellers and help them with other credit and liquidity issues,” Abouzeid said.
That sort of thinking reflects a continued worry at booksellers about funding, both now and going forward. Many booksellers expressed frustration with the rollout of the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program, although nearly 70% of the stores contacted have received PPP funding. Twenty percent of the stores have been approved for funding, but are still awaiting payment, while the remaining 10% of stores told PW that they either did not apply or have not received word on the status of their applications.
With so much uncertainty, many of the booksellers are interacting with local elected officials to consult on reopening. In Massachusetts, Nantucket Book Partners owner Wendy Hudson was appointed to a 17-member economic board by Governor Charlie Baker. The board will consult on phased reopening plans for the commonwealth. Some booksellers have also contacted federal officials, including Ariana Paliobagis of Country Bookshelf in Bozeman, Mont., who signed onto a letter to congressional officials written by the American Independent Booksellers Alliance requesting increased federal support for booksellers.
At Atomic Books in Baltimore, Md., co-owner Benn Ray said keeping his store open in the long-term means keeping it closed to the public in the short term. "Our state has not opened back up," Ray said, "but if it did, I would not at all feel comfortable reopening and I'm not sure what we'd do. I am more concerned about reopening too soon than I am not knowing when we'll reopen.
"Rushing to reopen has the greater potential to be disastrous," Ray continued. "It's hard to open your door when you worry the space you've so lovingly tended over the years could contribute to the death of another. It's hard to ask workers to risk their lives. And those states and people rushing to open things back up and pretend like nothing is wrong are essentially saying they are willing to sacrifice the lives of hourly wage workers on the altar of capitalism for the profit and wealth of the dominant elite."