Many governors across the United States have been eager to begin the multiphase reopening of businesses, but bookstore owners are acting cautiously. In remarks gathered from more than 25 independent bookstores, PW found that owners are reopening to in-store traffic more slowly than state guidelines allow, guided by their own sense of what it will take to ensure the safety of their employees.
“We’re aggressively delaying opening,” said Meg Wasmer, co-owner of Copper Dog Books in Beverly, Mass. Like many booksellers, Wasmer is seeing an uptick in online sales that has given her the opportunity to prioritize safety. “Online sales have been really strong, and we need a little more time to figure out how to manage that workflow with an open store,” she noted.
In Seattle, Krijn de Jonge, co-owner of Queen Anne Book Company, said the store is basing plans to reopen entirely on the comfort level of employees. While the city is now allowing in-store shopping, the staff has thus far been reluctant to open the doors. “They are still too anxious and worried about resurgence, so we have postponed opening the store,” de Jonge said. “We’ll continue with web orders for pickup, delivery, and mailing for at least two more weeks.”
Some bookstores are finding that even when they want to open, ensuring employee safety is not entirely within their control. Book Shop Santa Cruz in Santa Cruz, Calif., has had difficulty obtaining personal protective equipment for employees. So has BookPeople in Austin, Tex., where general manager Charley Rejsek expressed frustration at not being able to get sneeze guards, hand sanitizer, and other items needed to reopen.
Those challenges are compounded by the difficulty of fulfilling a substantial volume of online orders with technology that does not always cooperate. “We are currently running multiple days behind on processing online orders,” Rejsek said. “At this point, we are working for our website, it is not working for us.”
Many stores that are opening are placing strict limits on the number of customers allowed to browse at any given time. Gibson’s Bookstore in Concord, N.H., is open to customers by appointment only, while Annie Philbrick, owner of Bank Square Books in Mystic, Conn., and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, R.I., has gone to a plastic hall pass approach. Customers must wait if a pass into the store is not available.
Reopening represents a substantial challenge for many. Having just grown accustomed to running their businesses digitally under lockdown, owners are now grappling with the whipsaw of returning to normal operations, but with greater business pressures caused by the outbreak.
“It’s been hard to reinvent our processes every two weeks,” one owner said. “From online only to online and phone with curbside, to opening with masks and distancing. Scheduling, workflows, workstations, catching the [accounting] up to current. On top of it all, there’s unemployment paperwork, PPP changes to monitor, and negotiating payments to vendors.”
At Bright Side Books in Flagstaff, Ariz., manager Amy McClelland said, “Our business model changed so much in the eight weeks we were closed. The hardest part has been catching employees up to speed again once reopening. With specific Covid regulations for shoppers in place, our new shipping direct-to-home features, and online orders, it is a whole different kind of customer service we are offering now. It’s incredibly exciting but has also been hard on employees who were used to the old way of business.”
Booksellers also expressed discomfort with the pressure to reopen in the absence of convincing leadership on public health. Riffraff Bookstore co-owner Tom Roberge said the Providence, R.I., bookstore remains closed and that he is unsure about reopening. “State officials in Rhode Island, in our opinion, are moving a little too quickly on relaxing the guidelines,” he added.
A bookstore owner in the Midwest expressed alarm about customers coming from other regions and not following guidelines, putting the health of employees at risk. “We have clear signage stating our requirements but are still dealing with some who simply don’t agree with them,” the owner said. “We are in a small rural community that thrives on tourism from larger urban areas south of us. Over this past weekend we had a few customers who explained they had left their masks back at home, as they didn’t think they would need them, ‘because you don’t have Covid-19 up here.’ We then choose to educate our customers about our region’s lack of health-care options. The closest ICU is nearly two hours away.”
Nicole Magistro, owner of the Bookstore of Edwards in Edwards, Colo., said her store has faced similar challenges. “Out-of-town visitors, tourists, and second home owners view our community as a safe haven and an escape from their urban neighborhoods, while our staff and locals are still adapting to the protocols and safety measures we’ve pledged to uphold. It is hard to turn away business in order to protect our health when so much financial damage has been done. I am struggling to find a way to stay the course with a slow reopening while the market is signaling to open back up for long hours, seven days per week. Every day feels like a fine balance.”
At Brooklyn’s Greenlight Bookstores, co-owner Rebecca Fitting scaled back plans in order to assess whether the protests that have followed the killing of George Floyd would result in a spike in Covid-19 cases. The protests also led to a flood of orders for anti-racist books, which have employees are working through. “Being swamped by online orders is admittedly a nice problem for a small business trying to recover from a pandemic’s economic shutdown to have, and I am not saying it’s a hardship,” she said. “People’s desire to self-educate is a beautiful thing, but the timing of it just as we’re entering the next phase has been challenging.”
In Salt Lake City, the King’s English Bookstore remains closed to in-store traffic as the virus continues to spread throughout the state. “Covid cases in Utah are still on the rise, and our store is very small,” said manager Anne Holman.
In Baltimore, Atomic Books co-owner Benn Ray said the whole process of reopening should be cause for serious concern. He noted that little has improved since speaking with PW in May. “We have people coming to the door and knocking, thinking they can come in and browse, and they can’t. So that’s somewhat frustrating and distracting us from dealing with curbside, local delivery, and mail orders. I’m sure it comes as no surprise to anyone that many of us feel this situation could be handled better. But I guess at some point the ownership class decided it was time for hourly workers to get back to making them money, illness and death be damned.”