Many independent bookstore owners and managers across the country view the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s loosening of mask guidelines for vaccinated people as a failure of public policy, according to a recent informal survey by PW. Of the 31 booksellers we spoke with, 47% said the guidelines—which advise that vaccinated people no longer need to wear masks in most settings—are unclear and unhelpful, while another 33% said the announcement makes no difference for their bookstore’s operations. Only one in five respondents reported finding the guidelines useful. Two-thirds say they will continue to require masks in their stores.
For Nicole Sullivan at BookBar in Denver, the announcement was a frustrating disruption to her store’s careful planning. “We were unprepared for this, so we scrambled to come up with policies and messaging,” she said. BookBar will continue to require masks indoors, until “the U.S. vaccination rate is at 70% and vaccines have been approved for children under 12 years of age.” As of the third week of May, Colorado’s vaccination rate was just shy of 42%.
Other booksellers cited vaccine distribution disparities as a major factor in their decision to continue to require masks. Chris Abouzeid, co-owner of Belmont Books in Belmont, Mass., called the guidance “overly broad.” His store is in a county that was pummeled by the virus, and, he said, “the safety of all our employees and customers remains our top priority. We will continue to require masks at all times in the store until we can be sure that either everyone is vaccinated or the risk of infection has been reduced enough to no longer be a concern.”
Kenny Brechner, owner of Devaney, Doak, and Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, said he deeply resents the guidance. “I will be continuing to require masks because the safety of unvaccinated children and immunocompromised customers is a paramount concern,” he noted. “Losing the business of people who do not respect that is a cost I would rather pay than the alternative.”
Other booksellers cited conflicting state and local guidance in their reaction to the CDC guidelines. At Kepler’s Books & Magazines in Palo Alto, Calif., CEO Praveen Madan noted that the California Nurses Association had urged California to reject the CDC’s recommendations. “The guidance is premature, misinformed, and harmful, and it is causing confusion among the public,” Madan said.
In Baltimore, Md., Atomic Books co-owner Benn Ray is less angered, but only because he sees the guidance as being less relevant, given a customer base that is supportive of a stricter mask policy and rules set by the city government that remain in place. Instead, he said, the issue is the lack of uniform guidance from place to place. “You have people traveling—coming in from out of the city, out of state, where their regulations are different—and not taking the time to check out how where they’re going might be operating, and they may miss even the most obvious signage when entering a business,” he added.
Fears of confrontation
Much of booksellers’ disappointment stems from the fact that they are now responsible for enforcing mask wearing. Fewer than half of the bookstores said they felt comfortable enforcing their own rules, and 39% said their employees do not feel they can safely work in an open bookstore given the CDC guidance.
One bookstore owner from the Upper Midwest, who wished not to be named, wrote, “The majority of our clientele are the sort of people to be socially responsible and have been vaccinated, but the majority of the population of our state has not been, making it difficult to feel safe allowing unmasked activities. The people who opposed wearing masks in the first place are the people most likely to lie about having been vaccinated. The honor system can’t work in a society where trust doesn’t exist.”
With a box of masks by the front door, Kate Jacobs, co-owner of Little City Books in Hoboken, N.J., said she is concerned, even though New Jersey has not yet relaxed its indoor mask mandate. “We expect more conversation and confrontation,” she added.
Dorothy Massey, owner of Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, N.Mex., said she’s already been involved in confrontations over her store’s rules. Over the past 15 months, Collected Works has been closed to in-person browsing, offering pickup from a window instead. “Particularly last summer, people were downtown, walking around, and I had some pretty aggressive people asking to come in,” Massey explained. “I heard some extraordinary language, and in a couple of instances, I got called something I had to look up on Google to see what it was.”
Massey thinks much has changed since last summer, and she expects to reopen on June 1 with a mask requirement for all customers, as well as for staff, regardless of vaccination status. A veteran bookseller, she said she also has no problem enforcing the rules and thinks most people will abide by them.
Some have certainty
Not all booksellers are upset by the CDC’s announcement. One Upper Midwest bookstore owner wrote that their store’s staff is vaccinated, and they plan to comply with the guidelines. Another store owner in the western U.S. wrote that they do not wear masks, do not require customers to wear them, and do not believe they are effective in preventing the spread of an airborne virus.
Alice Hutchinson, owner of Byrd’s Books in Bethel, Conn., was one among a number of booksellers who felt the guidance was clear but was thrown off by the suddenness of the announcement. “It would have been easier for us if there was some kind of stepping up for the openings,” she said. In response to the guidelines, she made a firm and quick decision: “I do not want to be the mask police, so I am requiring masks in the store, if only to protect kids. Also, I am not sure opening up a store on the vaccine honor system is as reliable as we hope it is.”
Erin Matthews, owner of Books with a Past in Glenwood and Savage, Md., is certain that it is not. She said she has seen more than one person on her town’s Facebook page boasting that they are unvaccinated and planning to go into stores without a mask. Meanwhile, her staff will not be fully vaccinated for another three weeks. She said she will continue to require masks but has told staff not to confront customers who aren’t wearing them, since doing so might be a “safety risk.”
“I wish ‘clear and unhelpful’ was an option,” Matthews said of PW’s survey questions. “I know exactly what the CDC is saying, and it’s a disaster. Basically, it allows people who are unvaccinated to lie and say they are.”