There is a growing concern about the risk of being infected by the coronavirus among frontline booksellers in states that are showing a spike in Covid-19 cases, including those in Arizona, Texas, and Florida. Policies varied among bookstores surveyed by PW, with some still receiving customers, others opting to shift back to curbside-only service, and still others remaining shuttered altogether.
Several booksellers PW spoke to wanted to speak off the record, as they are hourly employees who feel their jobs may be at risk should they speak openly. Several booksellers noted that some owners, who happen to be in the older at-risk demographics, have limited their time in the store, opting to cede daily duties to younger employees.
One bookseller at an Arizona bookstore described growing consternation among staff at the idea of continuing to serve customers amid the spike in infections. The Poisoned Pen in Scottsdale, Ariz., reopened recently but closed again after the surge in Covid-19 cases, opting to go back to offering only curbside pickup.
"Fortunately for the last 20 years we have always functioned almost like a virtual bookstore, never had a majority of our customers in Arizona, so things haven't really changed," said Barbara Peters, owner. "We have been able to do a lot of events with international authors—we are doing more than 40 events—this month." Peters pointed out that the move to curbside shipping hasn't been an impediment to sales. "Since it is 110 degrees here, most people are happy to stay in their cars for curbside pickup," she said.
Over the past week, Houston has led the national news as one of the new virus hot spots, with a doubling of hospitalizations tied to the coronavirus since the city started reopening businesses just prior to Memorial Day. Bookstores across the city have employed different strategies.
Brazos Bookstore briefly reopened for two weeks before shutting down again, and is now back to doing curbside pickup. “We opened to the public on June 16 and ended up went back to curbside on June 27 as a result of the surge in cases,” said Ulrika Moats, general manager. “Prior to that, we were allowing five customers in the store, and were requiring masks and were giving out gloves.”
Moats said that, on the weekends, traffic was good and people were buying stacks of books. “When we had small wait lines, people were happy to wait and customers were grateful that were happy to open up,” she said. “Generally speaking, customers have been very supportive and patient with us. Some have had to wait for books, as some titles are slow to reprint.”
Kinokuniya, the Japanese bookstore chain, has four stores in Texas, including one in the Houston suburb of Katy. That store was open for business as usual, but on Friday, it started limiting the number of customers in the store to 10 at a time. Blue Willow Book Shop is continuing to take appointments, three per hour, from 10:00 a.m. through 4:30 p.m., in groups of three each, so a total of nine people total can shop in the store per hour.
In Florida, another coronavirus hot spot, Suz Orchard, owner of Key West Island Bookstore in Key West, Fla., said that “when we had the roadblock up and were shut down, I had a lot of customers who didn’t live here or come down once or twice a year, who bought gift certificates to make sure that we were still here when they returned.” Orchard is the only person working in the store, having told her one part-timer, who is a septuagenarian, not to come in to work because of the risk; she is continuing to be paid.
The store is once again open, but it is limited to six people maximum at a time who can browse, Orchard said. “Under the law, I can have 10 people in, but my store isn’t that big and the aisles are very narrow, so it’s six. I want to keep people safe.” Orchard added that she has numerous elderly customers whom she has called and told not to come to the store. She will deliver their books instead.
Orchard says that as soon as Key West opened up, tourists flocked to town. “There are a lot of people around, not social distancing and who don’t want to wear masks, but the authorities are starting to enforce that.” The beaches in town have been closed for the Fourth of July weekend to discourage people from congregating. “Contrary to what you see on the news, people are not crazy here. I’ve only had a few instances of people coming in saying ‘I’ll just put my t-shirt over my mouth’ and I say, ‘you have to put a mask’ on. I have had no problem with people complying.”
Orchard noted that shutting down for the coronavirus was a hardship on the store, and noted that Hooked on Books in nearby Islamorada was forced to close permanently in May. But the coronavirus isn’t her only concern. Hurricanes are another. “We’re in a hurricane zone, so we usually have to prepare for five to six weeks when we wouldn’t have people here,” she said. “We just didn’t think it would be so early in the year.”