Frontline booksellers are the first people customers see when they set foot in bookstores across America. They also do physically demanding work, from carrying heavy boxes to shelving thousands of books every year. Often they work for hourly wages and are among the most vulnerable workers in the publishing industry. During the first weeks of Covid-19 stay-at-home orders, thousands were laid off nationwide.

Over the past eight weeks, PW spoke with five frontline booksellers to hear about their experiences. They were granted anonymity in order to be able to speak freely. These are their words, edited and condensed for clarity.

A Mountain State bookseller

This bookseller spoke with PW in the days before a partial reopening in their state.

“We all sat down together when we saw our sales going down without people in the store. And it got to a certain point where we didn’t feel we could keep our employees safe. We shut our doors before the order to close came down. When the stay-at-home order got put into place, we went down to a two-person staff. We temporarily laid off almost everyone: we kept our marketing team [working by half shifts at home], but out of our 15 booksellers, only myself and one other gentleman kept our positions. I’ve been working 11-hour days most days.

“We applied for PPP, and we were able to hire everybody back for their normal hours. These are people that we know very well, and we work with them every day. We wanted to make sure that everyone was going to be able to be on temporary leave to be on unemployment. I think we did it the best way we possibly could have. We gave people as much heads up as we could.

“Personally, I think it was way too early to open—I think that curbside is fine, a table outside. We decided we weren’t going to reopen when the rest of the state did—we couldn’t do it safely. We have employees with preexisting health conditions.”

A New York City bookseller

A frontline bookseller in New York City is running his store’s online sales from home.

“We have been using Indie Commerce for a while. I process every order. If I’m up at two in the morning, and I see an order, then I process it. I don’t have to and it’s a lot of work, but you know, it’s replacing the store right now. I’m also messaging every single person. When I process an order, I don’t just click. I always ask if there’s anything we can do as a bookstore for our community.

‘I think we’re just going to make it worse if we open up soon. Our store owner was one of the only people to say that we needed to close in late February, while a lot of other independent bookstores were saying, ‘We need to stay open’ and using the word ‘essential,’ which we thought was ridiculous. There are so many ways to get books to people that don’t harm them. It took us a 10-minute meeting to say, ‘we need to close.’ It makes no sense to have people in the store. We don’t make decisions in a small bubble. It affects everybody.”

A Southwest bookseller

A southwest frontline bookseller and floor manager reflected on the healthcare system under crisis.

“We were supposed to reopen on March 28, and on the 26th the owners came to me with the decision that we were going to have to lay everyone off except me and the bookstore receivers. We would do online orders and curbside delivery. We all cried a lot and then had to make phone calls where we cried a lot more.

“We wanted to give the booksellers the opportunity to apply for unemployment. The owners aren’t taking payroll from the store yet, so it’s not like they could give up their pay for the booksellers.

“We made the decision for rehires based on who had already filed for unemployment or not, because we don’t know how long we can sustain unemployment. We don’t have health insurance. I honestly think that having a better health-care system—having a ‘socialist health-care system’—would have been the best way to handle this crisis. I know of so many people who just don’t go to the doctor because they can’t afford it.”

A chain frontline bookseller in the South

This bookseller found herself out of a job within just a few months of being hired.

“At first I was going to be a seasonal bookseller, and they asked me in February to stay on. I had just gotten the job and it was my first real job. I don’t think we should be opening up quite yet, because if no one stays home [the spread of the virus] is not going to slow.

“We were cleaning down our stations, customer service and registers, and the bathrooms as well. We were wearing gloves and were doing curbside pickups. Then I was told that I was going to be taken off the schedule. They probably wanted to give the hours to people who had been there longer. After people were cut from schedules, we got notice. I filed for unemployment, and I believe I was accepted. I just got my first job, and I’m signing up for unemployment in the span of five months.

“But I have to give it to my management team. I have three store managers and one assistant manager. They have been especially good and answered questions explaining things to me especially because I’m new. I said, ‘if you want to bring me back I would want to come back.’ ”

A New York State bookseller

A retiree, this bookseller has been working for nearly a decade as a frontline bookseller and was previously an educator.

“In the middle of March, everybody knew something was going on. The information and level of concern was ramping up exponentially. I worked that week, and we talked about what to do. [New York Governor] Cuomo is good about letting everybody know. We had a staff meeting on the March 15 and a last day of work on the 21st. There are three part-time booksellers. One is a high school senior and her sister has bad asthma—she said, ‘I can’t work.’

“I contacted the owner and said, ‘I don’t have to work. Everybody likes to have extra money. The high school girl works, but the third needs the money. I can be furloughed, and [the third person] should get the hours.’

“My concern is, is the store going to stay? What is this going to do to the business itself? Selfishly for me, not for me as a job, but as a community member. Someday I won’t work anymore, but I’ll want that bookstore to be there.

“The one sad thing about the way we’re selling books is that what I really thought was, ‘I’m going to be a bookseller. I’m going to be the best bookseller there is. That’s what I want to be. I’m going to be a great bookseller.’ If you love to read, you love to give people something to read. Right now, we’re fulfilling orders online. That’s sad. That’s not bookselling. I would not work for an online bookselling company. The people part, that interaction, is what’s so exciting to me.”