Scores of wildfires continue to blaze across the western United States, taking a toll on booksellers and publishing professionals across California, Washington State, and Oregon. The situation was acute in Oregon, where recent fires had burned through a million acres and the state put an estimated 500,000 people on evacuation notice last week.
A spokesperson for Ashland, Ore,-based Blackstone Publishing said eight employees lost their homes to the fires that have been ignited in the area. The company created a GoFundMe campaign to support these employees, and as of Sunday evening had raised more than $85,000 in donations toward its $100,000 goal. The publisher will match donations to the fund.
“There are so many fires in Oregon and Washington that it’s head spinning,” said Brian Juenemann, the executive director/marketing at Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA). “I’ve not been contacted by or informed by anyone under particular duress, but stores are certainly feeling the indirect impact.”
Juenemann has family members who have already been evacuated from their homes and many more are making preparations to evacuate. “We’ve been under a blanket of smoke and drifting ash for three days,” said Juenemann about his neighborhood in Eugene, Oregon. “No one out walking, No outside dining. Nothing close to even our new Covid way of living.”
“I don't remember this many large fires burning at the same time in previous years,” said Kit Steinaway, the programs manager at the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc), an organization that helps booksellers every year during wildfire season. She added that there are still four months to go until the 2020 fire season ends. The organization has already heard from eight booksellers affected by the fires. While no booksellers have reported losing their homes or stores yet, the organization has assisted three booksellers who were forced to evacuate with financial grants.
“I still worry that there are stores out there that we don't know about or that don't know they can call Binc,” she said, adding that organization has already reached out to around 20 bookstores and comic book stores near evacuation zones. “Any store in the wildfires’ path can probably use support,” said Steinaway. “Even if their store is not damaged, the loss of income from the areas being shut down will be a bigger hit than in past years, coming as it is on the back of Covid.”
California has already endured a difficult season, as wildfires have consumed 3.1 million acres this year—26 times higher than the damage last year during the same time period. “The stores are pretty quiet with dealing with fires, limited hours, and all the rest of the Covid-19 mess,” said Calvin Crosby, the executive director of California Independent Booksellers Alliance (CALIBA), who said that stores in San Francisco, Sonoma, and Napa have all seen sales affected by the smoky air quality. “Most are still upbeat and doing their best but very much with their noses to the grindstone,” he said.
At 11 a.m. on Wednesday, Green Apple Books posted a photograph of the sky as it turned ominous red over San Francisco. “Staff and customers alike seemed dazed and disoriented,” said Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of the bookstore. “The bad air and bizarre light hurt sales, but given the human misery this is causing elsewhere, we're not complaining. Others will have lost everything, so we try to keep a healthy perspective.”
According to Mulvihill, one former Green Apple employee had to be evacuated as the fires spread in the Bay Area, and staff members have family and friends who have also been evacuated. “Most of these fires are at least an hour from San Francisco, so it's mostly ash and smoke affecting us,” he said, urging the community to donate to Binc. The bookstore created a special “Books for When It Feels Like the World is Ending” section for customers, a display that included Octavia Butler's Parable of the Sower, a novel that imagines a near-future California plagued by climate change and wildfires.
“This is a very scary time to be a bookseller and a small business owner,” said Steinaway at Binc. She is always looking for more donations, especially as Covid-19 shutdowns affect the industry and the West Coast braces for months of wildfires. “With very few exceptions, every bookstore and bookseller is, or will be, in need.”