Nearly a year has passed since Southern California Independent Booksellers Association members unanimously voted to dissolve the organization and booksellers in Northern California voted to broaden membership to include the entire state. The resulting California Independent Booksellers Alliance has used the intervening months to unite booksellers from both parts of the state while navigating the unique challenges presented by Covid-19.

“Now that we are looking at the state as a whole, the real difference in what is happening with our members is urban versus rural,” says CALIBA executive director Calvin Crosby, former executive director of NCIBA.

According to Crosby, after the lockdowns eased, many rural stores throughout the state were able to reopen earlier—and offer limited browsing to patrons sooner—than their urban counterparts. In fact, a small handful of rural stores didn’t close completely. Starting in May, he notes, stores reopened “more deliberately” in cities like Los Angeles, San Francisco, and San Diego, where they had to follow stricter city guidance about reopening in addition to state mandates.

All California booksellers cope with the state’s high cost of living. “The struggle to generate enough income to cover expenses is a burden all our stores face,” Crosby says. Since the pandemic hit, CALIBA has seen layoffs and employees not returning to work because of health concerns, regardless of store size or location.

During the pandemic, the bookselling landscape has shifted in California. Some stores—University Press Books in Berkeley, Run for Cover Bookstore & Cafe in San Diego, and Barn Owl Books in Quincy, among others—have closed their doors and moved to online models or pop-up stores until they can once again afford retail space. But stores continue to open and revamp: Ruby’s Bookstore in Folsom (opening this month), Underground Books in Sacramento (reopened for curbside pickup in August), the Village Well in Culver City (grand opening in October), Depot Cafe and Bookstore in Mill Valley (reopening after renovation is completed, no date set yet), and Book Jewel in Westchester (opening soon).

“We were all set to have a grand opening on March 21 when California shut down all retail stores due to Covid-19,” says Sleepless in Laguna cofounder Joe Anzenberger. “We opened Mother’s Day weekend to basically no fanfare. We will have a real grand opening when it’s the right time to do that.”

Since April, CALIBA has been running virtual gatherings for booksellers. “Attendance has been good,” says Crosby. “The reality is that our booksellers are working hard, and schedules are squishy at best.” Sessions are recorded and available as podcasts on CALIBA’s Spotify channel. CALIBA has hosted a wide range of virtual offerings, from best practices for the holiday catalog and author appearances to a session with a nurse on how Covid-19 spreads and how booksellers can protect themselves and patrons. These educational events are augmented by regular real-time networking sessions where booksellers can share experiences as they cope with unprecedented challenges.

“The bookstore industry normally has regular in-person get-togethers,” says Mimi Hannan, assistant manager at San Diego’s La Playa Books, who appreciates these digital events. “I’ve never felt so connected to the community as I have while I’m on these weekly or sometimes even more frequent virtual gatherings.” She also has made use of the CALIBA website, which she calls “one of the best sources to see the federal, state, and private resources that are available to bookstores.”

Through its newsletter, CALIBA provides members with weekly alerts on legislative updates about federal and state aid programs. “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 for California booksellers.

“I think combining the state into one organization was a good call without knowing a pandemic was pending,” says Crosby, who now sees the merger as essential with challenges that booksellers now face. “Combining resources, messaging, and education was the best possible thing for California indie bookstores.”

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