While most bookstores have been adversely affected by the pandemic, independents in tourist towns on the Great Lakes and in the Rockies have had heavy customer traffic, leading to spikes in sales that they hope will continue into the fall and through the holiday season. Mary Jane Barnwell, who owns the Island Bookstore on Mackinac Island in northern Michigan, says that sales “are up tremendously” this summer over last year. Customers have been swarming the bookstore since it opened for the summer and fall on the first weekend in May. “I order every day,” she says. ”It’s wild. I’m astounded by the numbers.” Sales in June were up 20% and July 30% over June and July in a typical year. “At first I thought it was a fluke,” she says, noting that even last summer was “better than expected,” despite mask mandates and other Covid-related restrictions.
“This summer, a lot of people coming in are saying they were afraid to visit the island last summer,” she says. “So they’re here, along with people who did come last year and returned. There’s also been a lot of new customers making their first trip to the island. And I’m hearing more and more from customers that they want to buy books from an indie bookstore. It’s clicking with people that it’s important, and it’s keeping us alive.”
Dana Welshans, the owner of Snowbound Books in Marquette, on Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, reports that in-store sales began building immediately after the bookstore reopened to customer traffic in February 2021 after shutting its doors for three months. “The U.P. is remote, so everyone thought it was safe to visit Marquette,” she says. Sales in 2020 were up 2% from 2019, and every month in 2021 to date sales have topped both 2019 and 2020’s monthly numbers.
Last summer’s sales were 10% above 2019’s numbers, though only 10 people at a time were allowed into the store. This summer to date (May–July), sales are up 26% over May–July 2020, and 38% over May–July 2019. “As soon as the weather turned nice, we got people,” Welshans says. “I walk in some days and the store is so crowded, I want to turn around and walk out.”
While in 2020 and the first couple of months this year customers were “pandemic refugees” from elsewhere, Welshans says, “now we’re getting heat refugees,” people fleeing the extreme heat waves enveloping much of the U.S. this summer. Welshans noted that Snowbound’s proximity to Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore, part of the National Park System, has also contributed to the influx of booklovers to Snowbound this summer.
Two hundred miles west of Marquette, Apostle Islands Booksellers in Bayfield, Wis., is also having a record-breaking summer. Store manager Kristen Sandstrom notes that sales usually build slowly throughout June and typically spike on the Fourth of July weekend before leveling off. Not this summer. “Memorial Day weekend was like the Fourth of July,” she says, “and it hasn’t stopped since.” Sandstrom reports that typically summer weekends are very busy at Apostle Islands, while weekdays are less so. “This summer is not normal. We’re seeing very solid sales seven days a week. We haven’t had any slow days. Downtime doesn’t exist this summer.” Sandstrom reports that customer traffic is significantly heavier this summer than last, with the return of “more traditional” Bayfield tourists, whom she did not see in 2020. Last year Sandstrom saw more “pandemic refugees,” due to northern Wisconsin’s consistently low Covid rates. “People wanted to travel then and thought they’d be safer here because there is so much to do outdoors,” she says. “And the community was taking Covid precautions seriously. This summer, there’s more of a sense of freedom.”
According to Sandstrom, sales at Apostle Islands so far this year are “almost double” last year’s numbers and more than 50% over “our best year ever: 2018.” She anticipates that the trend will continue through the fall and into the holidays, as she considers that customers are committing themselves to “intentional purchasing,” realizing that they have to support their local businesses if they want them to remain open.
Almost 200 miles north, along Lake Superior’s shoreline, in Grand Marais, Minn., Gwen Danfelt, manager of Drury Lane Books, reported that “even before vaccines were available, customers were saying that they were here because they heard Cook County is safe.” Since March 2020, the sparsely populated county with 5,000 year-round residents just south of the Canadian border has consistently reported the lowest numbers of Covid cases in the state.
“It was really busy last winter. On the three days of the week when we were closed, people would come up and try the door,” Danfelt says, noting that sales in February, March, and April of this year were not just better than 2020’s sales, “but the best ever” in the 19-year-old indie’s history. That spike in sales has not slowed in the summer. May and June sales were up a combined 60% above May and June 2019, while July was up 50%, though the store was open fewer hours. While many customers are first-timers, others are returning customers who are “buying more volume than in previous years” to make up for lost time during the pandemic, Danfelt says.
Landlocked bookstores are thriving, too
Approximately 160 miles inland from Lake Superior, Sally Wizik Wills and Jennifer Wills Geraedts, the mother-daughter team operating Beagle and Wolf Books and Bindery in Park Rapids, Minn., report similar trends this summer. “July is usually our biggest month,” Wills says, “but this year, June was July, and July was through the roof,” up 50% over a typical July. “I certainly feel like we have some people who are here because they don’t feel safe going to Europe,” Wills says. “People feel like the pandemic is over, but they also feel like it’s not over.”
Farther west, in the Rocky Mountains region, two booksellers reported having summers similar to the Upper Midwest/Great Lakes booksellers PW spoke to. In Thermopolis, Wyo., Storyteller’s sales this summer though July were 35% above a typical summer; sales for this year to date are up 45% over last year. “It’s been crazy,” says owner Ellen Reed, noting that many Wyoming businesses, including Storyteller, remained open to customer traffic throughout the pandemic. Sales started climbing last summer and have remained up since then.
“There were a lot of people from downstate [Casper and Cheyenne], and a lot of Californians and people from back east who said they were here because their states were shut down,” Reed explains. She expects that heavy customer traffic will continue through the fall and winter, especially if mandates elsewhere are put in place again due to the delta variant.
Almost 400 miles south of Thermopolis, in Frisco, Colo., Lisa Holenko, the owner of Next Page Books & Nosh, reports that this has been “a record summer,” noting “it started earlier than usual. June is ‘mud season,’ and it’s usually not busy until July, but June this year was like July,” she says. “It started getting busy in April and May, and people kept coming. People were ready for travel, but not for flying, so perhaps they’re driving more.” Sales this summer to date are up 35% over a typical summer, she says.
The past 18 months, Holenko says, “have been so much better than expected” that Next Page has been scrambling to hire new employees. Holenko anticipates that the fall and holiday season will be strong, but is concerned about next year. “Will it stick or is this year an outlier?” she asks. “Will we fall back into the norm?”