Over more than six months of extreme disruption, the nation’s independent bookstores have steadily grown their businesses beyond their four walls. A PW survey of three dozen indies nationwide found most offering some combination of online sales, curbside pickup, home delivery, outdoor browsing, and in-store shopping. The diversity of sales channels reflects a substantial expansion of retail customer service as they navigate evolving market conditions caused by Covid-19 and climate change.
More than 80% of bookstores surveyed are now open for some form of limited in-store browsing, with appointments or other measures to ensure that they abide by state capacity guidelines. Of the shops that are not open to in-store browsing, all have online ordering and most are offering curbside pickup and outdoor browsing.
That level of customer service reflects an unparalleled modernization of independent bookselling, but the question on the minds of booksellers is whether their efforts will be enough to combat forces beyond their control. Nearly all expressed apprehension about the supply chain as the holiday season approaches, especially if titles sell out and need to be reprinted rapidly. “Our concern is less about a glut of titles coming to market after delays than the separate issue of delays in the publishing supply chain and a clogged process of reorders on titles that take off at retail unexpectedly,” said Kyle Hall of Interabang Books in Dallas.
Like many booksellers, Hall emphasized that he doesn’t blame publishers. “With capacity limited, we understand that publishers’ abilities to recalibrate what’s getting printed, bound, and shipped are going to be under strain,” he said.
Still, the undercurrent of worry is an indication of how much hinges on a steady supply of books in the coming months. Even with expanded options for customers, booksellers are deeply concerned about overall economic uncertainty, with many expecting flat sales in the fourth quarter at best. The drop-off of in-person events and limitations on in-store browsing create constraints at a time of year when packed stores have been the norm.
“We assume fall will be largely as it’s been since we reopened the physical store in mid-July,” said David Sandberg, co-owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., which is the 2020 PW Bookstore of the Year. “The main worry is how we will manage the holidays, since we’re restricting the physical store to 10 customers at a time. And while we will expand our open hours in October and then again in December, it still won’t be nearly enough to accommodate what would normally be our holiday traffic.”
Many booksellers also worry that another rise in Covid-19 cases could lead to a second wave of mandatory closures. “We are hopeful but guarded about the fall,” said Gayle Shanks, co-owner of Changing Hands Bookstores in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. “We hope to be able to stay open, we hope that we will be able to get important books shipped to us in a timely way, we hope our staff is safe, but we also know that the numbers of Covid cases could spike again, and we may have to close to the public once again.”
At the Yankee Bookshop in Woodstock, Vt., co-owner Kristian Preylowski said sales have held steady, which gives him hope, but added that all of that could disappear if a Covid resurgence leads to more lockdowns.
The uncertainty about the future coupled with the fact that the pandemic is no longer a short-term emergency is exhausting some booksellers. Nicola Orichuia, owner of I Am Books, a specialty store focused on Italian books in Boston’s North End, decided it is too much. He is going completely online. “I wasn’t confident [sales] would pick up,” he said. “So I decided to close the physical store.”