California booksellers have endured a year filled with calamity and hardship, but they faced it as members of a single organization. In fall 2019, the Southern California Independent Booksellers Association and the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association merged. The new California Independent Booksellers Alliance is now confronting one of the most challenging retail environments in a generation.

“I think combining into one organization was a good call without knowing a pandemic was pending,” says CALIBA executive director Calvin Crosby, who has led nearly 300 members through Covid-19 and a punishing wildfire season. “Combining resources, messaging, and education was the best possible thing for California indie bookstores.”

Like other bookselling organizations around the country that canceled in-person fall conferences, CALIBA recently held a virtual trade show. “Overall, average attendance was up over previous virtual sessions CALIBA has produced,” Crosby says. “This is amazing, as, throughout the state, booksellers are not only dealing with the pandemic, but also fire danger and horrid air quality from the fires” that have already consumed more than three million acres this year in California, affecting sales at stores in San Francisco, Sonoma, and Napa.

According to Kit Steinaway, the programs manager at the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, 112 California stores have already received support this year for expenses directly related to the pandemic. The organization has also provided wildfire-related grants to one bookstore and five individuals and families who were evacuated or lost their homes.

“This fire season has been unusually long and severe,” says Steinaway, calling the infernos a “disaster within a disaster.” She adds, “Californians are used to dealing with annual fires, but the Covid pandemic is adding another level of stress and difficulty.”

Naomi Chamblin, a CALIBA member and the owner of Napa Bookmine says, “Our online sales have continued to stay strong through the pandemic.” Smoke from nearby wildfires blanketed her community this fall, affecting business at Napa Bookmine’s three locations, including the 1,550-sq.-ft. “mothership” new and used shop in Napa, a new book and gift shop inside Oxbow Public Market, and a in St. Helena. As of September, “the two smaller stores, which rely greatly on tourist business, have taken a pretty big hit,” she says. “We are about 70% down for the last six months for those stores.”

Nevertheless, Chamblin stresses that her community is resilient and supportive. “Since our huge earthquake in 2014, our tragic local fires in 2017, and annual negatively impacted air quality from other California fires, Napa locals are used to adjusting and moving forward and seeing where they can help.”

To keep pace with the various changes caused by the pandemic and fires, CALIBA is providing members with weekly alerts about legislative updates on federal and state aid programs through its newsletter. “The stores that have received funding have certainly used it to stretch and continue to stay open,” Crosby says. He cites “extension of unemployment benefits” and “more relief for business” as the key legislative issues going forward for California booksellers.

“CALIBA provides a lot of information about how the state and federal governments are addressing Covid transmission on many levels,” says Mimi Hannan, an assistant manager at San Diego’s La Playa Books and CALIBA member. “It’s a set of information that changes, especially back in March, April, and May, when it seemed like we had to switch out our business model every week.” She especially appreciated CALIBA’s informational sessions about how to access funding from federal programs and private organizations.

While many booksellers are already in holiday-sales mode, Crosby has an eye on 2021’s events. “I believe that there is a hybrid version of gathering together in the future, with a mixture of in-person and virtual experiences,” he says. “We need to be building a way to make this viable and valuable.”

The challenging environment booksellers faced in 2020 won’t magically disappear next year. “The biggest worry we hear about is the general uncertainty of keeping doors open as the pandemic drags on,” says Binc’s Steinaway. “They are being amazingly creative and resilient, but the bookstores need their communities’ support to help them survive.”

Embracing flexibility

As booksellers faced these epochal changes, the California book publishing sector also confronted a radically changed landscape. “The reality is that people are still buying books, and they always will,” says Gabriel Wilmoth, director of sales and marketing at Los Angeles–based SCB Distributors. “Overall, [sales] are not too far off year-to-date, and we are looking forward to a strong holiday season. Based on the orders our reps are sending in, it looks like the booksellers are bracing for a solid couple of months.”

According to Wilmoth, cooking, how-to, chess, poetry, and homeschooling books are particularly popular at the moment—along with “a huge bump in coloring and activity books.” So far, the indie publishers distributed by SCB have persevered. “We have not seen a single SCB publisher close down due to the pandemic,” he notes, suggesting that relief loans and other federal initiatives may have helped publishers survive. “Some publishers may have reduced working hours a bit at times to cut overhead, but I have seen no personnel laid off.”

Angela Bole, CEO of the California-based Independent Book Publishers Association, helped publishers rally during this crisis. But her members felt the loss of the bookstores that were forced to close during the 2020 lockdown. She saw many IBPA members turning to direct-to-consumer marketing with virtual book clubs, book blogs, and social media during this difficult period. “Figuring out these less traditional channels will be more crucial than ever,” she says, “as shelf space continues to shrink at bricks-and-mortar bookstores and libraries.”

Since March, IBPA has hosted weekly online roundtables via Zoom for member publishers, which will continue monthly. “The government’s initial relief package, including the Paycheck Protection Program, was a frequent topic of conversation,” Bole says. Through these roundtables, it became clear that IBPA members were struggling to get support from federal programs that helped some businesses through the early days of the Covid crisis.

“Frustration seemed to be the prevailing emotion expressed when the topic of federal aid came up,” Bole says. “It could be that members were silent about how much they were helped by federal aid programs. Certainly, some of them received Paycheck Protection Program loans, but this was complicated by confusing deadlines and requirements.”

Booksellers and publishers will have to work together as California and the rest of the country heads toward recovery. “The booksellers have been absolutely wonderful in accommodating our sales reps,” Wilmoth says. He adds that some of his publishers have delayed projects for a variety of reasons, including printing and shipping problems and shifting editorial priorities. “Distributors, sales representatives, wholesalers, retailers, and everyone else involved need to be patient and flexible as these independent publishers get back on track.”

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