At the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic, many booksellers were forced to close their doors and shift the way they do business. Two and a half years and three or more booster shots later, pivots have become a fact of life. To find out what changes independent bookstores have made and are planning to keep, PW reached out to several.
In some respects, little has changed for booksellers since lockdowns began in March 2020. “We have to do what comes to us and continue our service to the community,” said Janet Webster Jones, owner and founder of Source Booksellers in Detroit. To make that happen, though, she has to work even harder: “It’s everything all the time, in a lot of different ways.”
In addition to increasing the amount of work booksellers do, the pandemic has sped up business shifts that were already underway, including how people shop. “We like having browsers, but we don’t depend on it,” Jones said. “This idea that a person is going to come to a bookstore and browse, it doesn’t sustain the business now.”
Like many stores, Source, which specializes in nonfiction, has had to transition to being both a neighborhood bookstore and a mail-order business. In the wake of the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police in May 2020, the 33-year-old store gained customers from around the country who wanted to support Black-owned businesses. Jones’s daughter and business partner, Alyson Jones Turner, turned the store’s website into an e-commerce site. Source also sells online through Bookshop.org and Libro.fm.
More robust websites with online ordering capabilities have also helped indies get a larger share of preorders, like last month’s record-breaking 800,000 copies for Colleen Hoover’s It Starts with Us. Preorders for adult and children’s titles have grown significantly at Blue Willow Bookshop in West Houston, Tex. “We’ve worked hard to become the shipping center that we never imagined we would be—the shop has the lively mix of shopping and the sound of packing tape,” said owner Valerie Koehler, adding that she now knows how to ship to Dubai.
A general bookstore with a strong children’s section, Blue Willow has also done well recently with book sales to schools in conjunction with in-person and online author visits. “With so many virtual school visits, it takes many hands to fill all the orders,” Koehler said.
Arguably, as far as bookselling is concerned, author events have changed the most during Covid—so much so that Lori Fazio, president and COO of RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, Ct., calls events “an ongoing learning process.” Events have switched from in-person to virtual and back again. Some bookstores are also hosting successful hybrid events that combine both formats.
Though RJ Julia continues to host virtual events, Fazio prefers in-person gatherings, like one the store held last month with Jodi Picoult and Jennifer Finney Boylan for their book Mad Honey, which drew 450 people. “The energy is different when there’s a crowd,” she said. To draw customers to large events and more intimate ones, the store launched a frequent-attendance program in September. It works much like a frequent-buyer program, with event-goers getting stamps toward a gift card for each event that they attend in person.
For Peter Glassman, founder and owner of Books of Wonder children’s bookstore in New York City, one advantage of a virtual event is that “it opens up a great opportunity to have authors from all over the world.” There is a downside to in-person events, he added, in that “authors seem to be more eager to do live events than readers are in attending.”
Glassman’s found this to be particularly true for picture book authors. Though families shop together in the store, he said, parents are more cautious about bringing young children for events. Since teens are more independent and can get to Books of Wonder on their own, in-person events geared toward them tend to draw a larger audience. So do hybrid events, including a recent one for Nikhil Out Loud with middle grade novelist and actor Maulik Pancholy in conversation with actor Jesse Tyler Ferguson. In fact, it was the biggest event the store has hosted since the pandemic began.
Like Source, Books of Wonder has experienced a dramatic decrease in foot traffic. “What we’re missing,” Glassman said, “is the third of our customers who worked in the neighborhood.” Fortunately, the store launched a new website right before the pandemic, which he described as “the anti-Amazon website,” adding, “Rather than everything for everybody, our website is very curated.” He also uses the store’s website to gain additional exposure for virtual events. He estimated that more than half of event viewings take place days and weeks later, online.
At Washington, D.C.’s Politics and Prose, online ordering has seen a four- or five-fold increase since the start of the pandemic, co-owner Bradley Graham said. “Now orders have leveled off.” Even so, he noted, they are still more than double the level they were at in March 2020. The store also has a larger team of staffers who can fill orders because of their experience in the early days of the pandemic.
In addition to resuming much of its robust events schedule in person, Politics and Prose is livestreaming more events. In order to satisfy distant customers, it offers a mix of more than 40 in-person and virtual classes, including an online memoir class with Howard Norman.
Promoting events has also changed. At Square Books Jr., one of a quartet of Square Books stores in Oxford, Miss., children’s bookseller Jilleen Moore said that once storytime moved from virtual back to in-person, she began collecting phone numbers from customers so that she can text children’s-related information to them, including updates on book orders. She also sends texts to remind families about storytimes and other events. “This works amazingly,” Moore added. “I’m thanked frequently by busy parents, nannies, and grandparents.”
Keeping Square Books well stocked has become more difficult due to shipping delays and increases in the price of fuel. Moore said the store’s buyers are “ordering huger stacks of definite handsells and the ageless literary staples.” Quoting owner and founder Richard Howorth, she added, “Sell more of what sells.”
Partnerships and a successful GoFundMe have helped seven-year-old EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookstore through the pandemic. In 2019, the store moved from a 1,200-sq.-ft. location to a 3,000-sq.-ft. one nearby in Universal City, Mo., a suburb of St. Louis, and added a café. When schools closed to in-person learning in spring 2020, EyeSeeMe lost a third of its revenue, which came from book fairs, co-owner Jeffrey Blair said. Fortunately, he noted, the store got a few “big hugs” from the community.
The first came following a shout-out in USA Today by Sheryl Sandberg, then Facebook COO, in support of EyeSeeMe’s fund-raising campaign. Her boost helped the store raise nearly $41,000 to cover rent and salaries. “We were thrilled by the response,” Blair said. “People donated or stopped by the store and bought books.”
Following the murder of George Floyd, EyeSeeMe got big orders from around the country, and Blair and his wife, Pamela Blair, went from laying off staff to hiring 14 people and converting events spaces into a shipping center. Though online sales have since fallen from 100% of store sales to about a third, the store’s book fair business and in-store sales have both begun to bounce back.
Perhaps the store’s biggest pivot involved partnerships to get books into children’s hands. In 2020, in conjunction with MilliporeSigna’s STEM project for kids, EyeSeeMe distributed 10,000 books. This past summer the store hosted the company’s Curiosity Cube, a shipping container that has been converted into a mobile science lab to teach children about STEM. This year, EyeSeeMe began partnering with In Purpose Educational Services to make banned books available for free to parents and students in Missouri, and now distributes 400 challenged books a month.