Buoyed by strong holiday sales and an unprecedented consumer shift to online ordering, independent bookstores have weathered more than 10 months of the Covid pandemic, with some even posting sales gains in 2020. But PW’s ongoing survey of store owners and managers found that many remain concerned about the government’s response to the pandemic and the continuing uncertainty about the health of the economy.

The 25 independent bookstores who participated in the survey had widely varying sales results last year, with one store reporting a 50% sales increase over 2019 and another citing a 43% decline. Ten stores reported sales declines of 10%–35% compared with the previous year. Nine stores hovered between declines of 10% and gains of 10%. While those numbers would not be encouraging in other years, the declines were less drastic than some predicted back in spring.

The defining characteristic of the year was consumers’ shift to online ordering. At Queen Anne Book Company in Seattle, online sales were 5% of the business in previous years. In 2020, e-commerce spiked to 70%. Co-owner Krijn de Jonge said the store was able to streamline internal processes to make order fulfillment more efficient, but it came at a cost. “From late November until the end of 2020 we did not allow in-store shopping, because we were too busy with online orders,” he noted. “We were not able to control and monitor safe in-store shopping at the same time.”

Nearly all of the bookstores surveyed reported similar challenges associated with staffing and processing online orders, which take substantially more time to handle than in-store purchases. Eileen McGervey at One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., is worried about the toll the work is taking on her employees. The bookstore finished 2020 with a 27% increase in sales over 2019, but she said the workload is creating unprecedented challenges. “We have reduced staff due to the loss of immunocompromised staff,” she noted. “Some staffers have been working nearly nonstop since mid-March.”

McGervey invested heavily in staff training and support for handling online sales, but the loss of customer interaction has altered her business approach. “Our focus is on our community, and since we remain closed to the public, we have limited opportunity for one-on-one discussion,” she said.

Julie Beddingfield, co-owner of Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, N.J., said online sales at her store in 2020 were up 2,829% over the previous year. But just as One More Page’s McGervey is worried about staff fatigue, Beddingfield noted that she’s worried about “shop local” fatigue in the months to come. “Folks have been very supportive,” she added. “But how much of that will be retained this year if we aren’t able to get back to normal capacity limits and in-store activities? I’m not sure how to address that, other than to keep the messaging up.”

Looking ahead

Some booksellers expressed fears of more lockdowns, but in Glenwood, Md., Books with a Past owner Erin Matthews said she wanted to see more decisive action from state and local officials. “I’m concerned that ethically we will feel the need to lock down again, but our county and state won’t move in that direction,” she noted.

Without government action, Matthews said the decision to shutter the store for the safety of employees will fall to her, with potentially disastrous consequences. “We will be left with no avenue for funding, and angry customers who may not understand our decision.”

In Park Rapids, Minn., Beagle and Wolf Books & Bindery remained popular with tourists last summer despite the pandemic. Owner Sally Wizik Willis said customers followed a mask requirement in the store, even in the months before the state mandated them. “We’ve had virtually no pushback,” she noted. “But I’m worried how that will work as the vaccinations are rolled out.”

Booksellers are also aware of Amazon’s enormous profits during the pandemic, and many are clamoring for the incoming Biden administration to take action to address the company’s dominance. “Serious antitrust enforcement of Amazon would be a major breakthrough,” said Jonathan Welch, co-owner of Talking Leaves... Books in Buffalo, N.Y. He added that urgent action is needed to create “more and fair public assistance programs to help independent businesses and small businesses, redirecting aid from tax giveaways for corporate superstores and predatory businesses like Amazon to community-based businesses.”

East Bay Booksellers’ Brad Johnson said that shortages of print books remain a major issue as well, alleging that Amazon is receiving preferential treatment from publishers. “I remain concerned and frustrated by the [lack of] availability of key titles, especially when I see that Amazon is not necessarily enduring the same shortage,” he noted.

Meanwhile, weeks of political chaos in Washington, D.C., have exacerbated fears of violence around the country. In Denver, Second Star to the Right’s Dea Lavoie said, “I’m concerned right now about our political climate and [what would happen] if white supremacists target our store.”

All of it makes for an uncertain year ahead, but booksellers expressed a determination to continue to assert their presence as effectively as they did in 2020—by keeping their focus on their customers. And though people are suffering from pandemic fatigue, said Michaela Smith, manager of Dolly’s Books in Park City, Utah, “we hope they will continue to support all local businesses to the best of their abilities.”