When some 4,000 public librarians gather in Portland, Oregon for the biennial Public Library Association conference—the first major library conference since the pandemic lockdowns began in 2020—they will have abundant local, indie bookstores to visit. Known for store-specific, unique curation, Pacific Northwest bookstores are flavored by their local environs.
The biggest insight Pacific Northwest indie booksellers learned from pandemic lockdowns? That their customers and communities are loyal, and committed to buying local. Many stores we reached out to increased capacity for online ordering during the pandemic, which has persisted beyond the lockdowns and made shopping local even more accessible. Another big insight: indie bookstores anchor local small business districts. Help from other small business through shared promotion and word-of-mouth foot traffic helped these indie businesses understand better what draws people to shop in-person.
Below is a selection of Pacific Northwest booksellers, a number of which are in Portland, and a little about who they are and how they've come through a challenging two years.
Well-loved in the hilly neighborhood in outer SW Portland, Multnomah Village, Annie Bloom’s is known for its great curation—and the cat that sleeps on the cash register. Customers will often hike (or sometimes ski!) into the Village.
Before the pandemic, Annie Bloom’s would typically get a few online orders a day. During lockdown, that instantly changed to dozens per day, with “frequent trips to the post office and employees delivering books to nearby homes,” says Michael Keefe, director of publicity. Purely in terms of sales, “we’ve done well over the past two years, thanks to our devoted and supportive customer base, who chose to shop locally during a time when ordering online was a greater temptation than ever before.”
At the store, Covid-19 greatly impacted operations. “Like so many businesses, we had significant turnover, with several longtime staff members retiring, sheltering in place, or cutting back hours,” says Keefe. “Also like so many businesses, our doors were closed to the public for an entire year, and we adapted to being an online retailer with curbside pickup. Now, of course, we're largely back to normal, with customers browsing in the store again.”
In Ashland, Oregon, the pandemic was only part of the “new normal” challenging booksellers. Another aspect: the extended fire season and smoke associated with it that can drive tourists away and keep local people indoors. For Ashland Book Exchange, that has become a chief concern more than fifty years into the bookstore’s existence.
Ashland Book Exchange sells mostly used and antiquarian books, and some new books. And with its well-known Shakespeare Festival closed for the last two seasons, the store has relied on local customers in south-central Oregon and northern California. “We adapted our business model to the new reality,” says co-owner Roy Laird. “We’re very proud of the amount of support we and other local businesses have received from the community.”
Down the street, Richard Miller, owner of Heremeticus Books, had to relocate his bookstore after the 2020 wildfire destroyed his original store in nearby Talent, Oregon. Miller reopened Hermeticus on B Street in Ashland—and customers appreciate his excellent selection. Customers call Hermeticus Books “a rare find” and praise the store’s diverse offerings.
At a quiet remove from the convention center, boardwalk, and bumper cars of Seaside, Oregon, locals and tourists amble into Beach Books. Owner Karen Emmerling opened the store in 2005 and moved the shop to its corner location in 2014. On most days, “in-person sales account for close to 80% of our business,” she says. “However, online is definitely growing. There are days, especially in the winter, that it exceeds in-person.”
Beach Books specializes in fiction, kids’ books, and YA, and experiments with new categories in response to reader demand. “We added a metaphysical section after receiving many requests for tarot cards and books on crystals,” says Emmerling. “We found we were reordering it regularly, so we expanded” with books like Microcosm Publishing’s Little Bit of series. Similarly, the shop added a shelf of horror titles, with Catriona Ward’s The Last House on Needless Street becoming “a staff favorite.” Beyond genre categories, Emmerling is also excited to hand-sell Jamie Ford’s The Many Daughters of Afong Moy, Shelby Van Pelt’s Remarkably Bright Creatures, V. E. Schwab’s Gallant, and Holly Black's Book of Night.
With help from manager Alexa Butler, Emmerling expanded Beach Books’s social media presence on Instagram and BookTok. This visibility kept the shop on customers’ radar over the past two years dealing with Covid-19, and drove sales of popular fiction like Emily Henry’s Beach Read and Adam Silvera’s They Both Die in the End. “Our sales in 2021 were approximately 54% above 2020 and 49% above 2019,” Emmerling says.
Emmerling and Butler envision Beach Books as a community hub as well as a destination for vacationing bibliophiles. And with social spaces now reopening, Beach Books hosted an in-store event for Jill Busby, author of the PNBA Award-winning Unfollow Me, and supported Seaside Public Library events for Portland author Juhea Kim’s Beasts of a Little Land.
“The Pacific Northwest is huge into supporting small businesses,” says Becky Wyland, co-owner of The Bookloft in Enterprise, Oregon, a town of 2,000 people fifty miles west of the Idaho border. “We live in a special part of the world that has taken care of us during a very difficult time.” It wasn't always easy, Wyland concedes, acknowledging that the store's mask mandate, for example, was not been popular with customers who hold differing "opinions on how to deal with Covid.”
Co-owners Wyland and Katy Madrid bought the store in March 2020, right at the start of the pandemic. Madrid had retired in March of 2020, and she worked with the previous owner to purchase the Bookloft to fulfill a long-time dream of spending her retirement surrounded by books and coffee. Wyland says she is “insanely proud” of being able to keep the store going, having taking over a beloved store that had existed for so many years and ushering it through the uncertainty of Covid-19: “Having to move, getting ingrained in a new community, going through Covid. It’s a lot to ask of a little independent bookstore.”
With so few other bookstores within hundreds of miles, “it’s not just a store to most of our customers, it’s part of their family. I love that I've been able to create that environment for people,” Wyland says. “It makes me so happy that we are still going,” she says, taking special pride in “keeping the local flavor” of their tight-knit if geographically broad rural community.
The paper bookmark you get when you buy a book at Broadway Books has a quotation from beloved Portland-area author Brian Doyle: “Bookstores are story ambassadors. They are hope agents. They are imagineers and dream merchants.” It perfectly captures the spirit of this bookstore, founded in 1992 by women and still owned by women.
Broadway Books has proven resilient in the face of the many challenges of Covid-19: the need to invest in masks and additional safety supplies; the cost of an upgraded HVAC filtration system; an uptick in the city’s crime rate; and the lack of in-store author events. But despite it all, Broadway Books did not close the store, even at the very beginning of the crisis, when the store had to shut its doors to customers. “We switched to online sales and curbside pick-up and we were able to keep all of our employees, and in fact gave them raises,” notes owner Kim Bissell, adding that online sales are becoming an increasingly important part of the store’s business.
Although independent Browsers Bookshop in Olympia, Washington, was forced to close for two months at the start of the pandemic, they felt the local love for their small business. “We did at least a thousand home deliveries as well as mail-outs,” said owner Andrea Y. Griffith, “so we were a resource during the main part of the pandemic for our entire community, especially when the libraries were closed and online retailers deprioritized mailing books.”
While Griffith says she worries about the health and safety of her employees as well as supply chain disruptions, Browsers Bookshop emerged intact from the stressors of 2020 and 2021. “We’re lucky that our community takes Covid-19 seriously and supports things like mask-wearing,” she says.
The resilience of her staff and the community has Griffith cheering for “the audacity” of what independent bookstores do. “In a world that is constantly consolidating to maximize profit, and in a nation that seems to consistently devalue thought and conversation, we're trying to be a beacon,” Griffith says.
Children’s book shop Green Bean Books keenly felt the love and support of the Portland community during the pandemic. The community bought books from the store, helped with deliveries, and wrote encouraging messages on chalk boards outside the store.
Green Bean Books founder Jennifer Green also notes that authors and illustrators also offered their services, including “free illustrations for us to use to get the message across about what we were offering.” Creators made comic strips about the store that were featured in the New York Times, donated original artwork to give to customers, and made a thank-you support song that was shared with the American Booksellers Association nationally. “It was super heartwarming and incredible to feel how much our community valued us,” Green notes.
While the Pacific Northwest weather proved a challenge for curbside pickup, the covered patio of the store helped keep books out of the rain. Portlanders are dedicated to local, value-based buying, and Green Bean Books attributes the local support they received as crucial to their pandemic survival.
In 2018, after nearly four decades in their old space in Aloha, Oregon, new owner Lori Carroll moved Jan’s Paperbacks to its new home in Beaverton—and despite the challenge of the pandemic, the store continues to thrive. “Because I’m a small store with no employees, I was able to stay open,” Carroll, said, adding that her ability to stay open during the pandemic actually helped her business grow.
“[The store] had a lot of exposure through news outlets and introduced me to a lot of people that didn't know about me,” she explains. Small businesses in downtown Beaverton even started a daily Live Instagram program to help promote and share each other, which made a big difference, as collaboration among small business owners amplified their reach.
“Without the community I would never have made it,” Carroll says, adding that Jan’s Paperbacks prides itself on supporting the local community and authors. “We love our authors,” she said. “Supporting authors by holding events and allowing readers and authors to meet and mingle is a great joy.”
In April 2020, Olympia’s Orca Books became Orca Books Co-op, a member-owned and worker-run space. “We transitioned from a traditional single-owner small business into a cooperative work structure,” said business manager Fiona Vogel. “We’re one of a few cooperative bookstores in the country, and we’re incredibly proud of this accomplishment.”
Switching to a collective model required trust among stakeholders, amid the already-rampant uncertainties of the past two years. “We had to close for multiple months due to Covid-19, and we have a firm policy of paying workers who are absent due to Covid-19, so managing our finances during has been challenging,” Vogel explains. She also expresses concern about the future of retail businesses given other destabilizing factors in the Pacific Northwest resulting from climate change. “Unprecedented snowfall, flooding, wildfires, and smoke cause us to close up shop on the regular, losing precious retail business income,” Vogel says.
With pandemic financial aid packages and the strong support of their customers Orca Books Co-op has sustained small brick-and-mortar business. And it all comes back to community, Vogel says, acknowledging the power that retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble hold. “They’re able to reach deals with publishers on pricing and availability that any individual bookstore simply can’t match,” says Vogel. “But we’re doing our best to attract customers to a traditional bookstore instead of ordering online.”
The iconic indie bookstore that takes up an entire city block, Powell’s Books has anchored Portland’s downtown for some five decades. But the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath have made this an unsettling time.
Powell’s is rebuilding their business and adding resources “one day at a time,” says Kim Sutton, director of marketing. Sales are about two-thirds of pre-pandemic numbers. And after tension around the sudden, massive layoffs in March 2020 (an estimated 85-90% of employees were let go) Powell’s is now back to more than 350 employees again, although not without union grievances over re-hiring.
Sutton said that Powell’s is grateful that the State of Oregon maintained the highest level of safety standards in the country. “Their approach to making public spaces as safe as possible matches our values,” Sutton says, “and it has been helpful to have that support when we uphold safety protocols.”
Meanwhile, the business is changing. Though Powell’s actually beat Amazon to book e-commerce, beginning its program back in 1994, until the pandemic e-commerce remained a small portion of the business. As Covid-19 forced Powell’s retail stores to remain fully or partially closed for several months, depleting revenue, employees instead scrambled around the warehouse to fulfill online orders. And that flip to fulfilling orders exclusively through Powells.com—in an unprecedented volume—has not been without its challenges.
With Covid-19 numbers dropping, life is getting back to some semblance of normal. And with it, people are returning to bookstores.
“Bookselling is a unique form of retail in that it really is an experience,” said Emily Powell, the third-generation owner and president of Powell’s in an interview with Oregon Business. “It is a place you go with your friends, family, where you wander, and maybe have a coffee and a snack. I am not worried about the future of brick-and-mortar retail. It is going to have a robust future. We all need a place to be.” As Powell’s shoppers can now move nimbly between online and in-store experiences, the store “is a technology company as well as a book company” with planned renovations both to its website and its legendary building.
Founded in 2019, Third Eye Books is a Black-owned bookstore in Portland, Oregon focused on Africa-centered books. In 2020, Third Eye was named in Oprah magazine as one of the 117 most inspiring Black-owned bookstores. The store has since endured multiple hardships. Forced to vacate their storefront at the beginning of the pandemic, co-owners Charles Hannah and Michelle Lewis raised $25,000 to fund the re-opening of their brick-and-mortar location. The Black Resilience Fund and Black Equity Giving Circle helped to keep the store afloat during the pandemic as well.
Third Eye recently launched a new app for purchasing through the store, and has been busy establishing partnerships with various organizations, such as Self Enhancement Inc., Campfire of Portland, Friends of the Children, Catholic Charities and local Portland schools. “These partnerships have allowed us to serve a multitude of children and families with diverse books,” Hannah says.
The local business community came together to look out for and protect each other in the wake of the pandemic. “I would like to express my sincere gratitude to the community members who have helped us these past two years,” Hannah says. "Not just the ones who purchased books every month, but also the ones who attended bookstore pop up sales during the pandemic and told their employers, friends, and family to stop by our shop.”