When lockdowns began in most parts of the country in March, many booksellers expected to reopen quickly. Now, six months later, they are preparing for Covid-19 to permanently reshape the landscape of independent bookselling. PW spoke with the owners of three bookstores that are already adapting to a new world in which, they say, booksellers are more important than ever.
Keeping the team
In June, Praveen Madan watched as California’s lead in controlling the coronavirus outbreak disintegrated amid a rushed reopening. By that point, the CEO of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., had seen his employees rally to ensure the store’s survival, and the way forward was clear. “This pandemic is an existential threat to retail, and it is also an opportunity,” he told his staff. “How can we think about this in a more systematic way to proactively plan and push our model forward and seize the opportunity?”
Madan says, “Our biggest asset in this business is this team,” To preserve the team, he set a goal of increasing starting employees’ wages from $15 per hour to $22–$23 per hour within five years. Now, he and his staff are focused on figuring out which new activities they need to do, which ones they need to stop, and which they need to accelerate.
This approach has already saved the store once. After Madan and his wife, Christin Evans, who runs their other store, the Booksmith in San Francisco, purchased Kepler’s in 2012, he launched a nonprofit literary foundation that handles the store’s events programming and develops community literacy partnerships. Kepler’s also committed to raising salaries and building a core team. It worked, and, to Madan, the store’s resilience during the first months of the outbreak was one more validation.
The Kepler’s team embraced new digital strategies that have increased daily online sales twentyfold since the start of the year. A citywide digital book club created hundreds of sales. And, when the Menlo Park Library’s supply chain collapsed, the bookstore became its fulfillment center.
“Keeping this team is one of the best decisions we ever made,” Madan says. Given the community and digital initiatives underway, there has been plenty for them to do without being on the sales floor.
“We have options; we have control,” Madan notes. “We can redesign what the community bookstore experience is going to look like through this pandemic and postpandemic and have a better, stronger, even more sustainable business.”
Putting community first
Opened in 2013, Denver’s BookBar is a multifaceted retail operation that includes a nonprofit, a hybrid bookstore and bar, a bookmobile made from a former ambulance, and an apartment above the store used for authors on book tours. The bookstore’s literary foundation, BookGive, is housed in a historic local gas station that BookBar owner Nicole Sullivan purchased last year when the community feared its demolition.
Sullivan’s approach has been to continuously expand what the store offers. When the outbreak began, she accelerated the pace. “It’s all about what we can do for our community,” she says.
In the pandemic era, Sullivan is expanding into four new ventures. Instead of renting out the apartment while book tours are on hold, she is developing a writer-in-residence program. At the same time, she is launching BookBar Press, a publishing venture using IngramSpark with five titles in the works. She is also creating a fee-based self-publishing program for local authors that features educational services to teach them how to market their books.
Lastly, Sullivan started a loyalty program that gives members exclusive access to content and discounts in return for a donation to BookGive. Requests to the foundation from schools, libraries, and school lunch distribution centers have poured in. “We weren’t prepared for how much of a need we were going to fill in the community,” she says. “Since March we have donated over 15,000 books to 53 nonprofits in Denver.”
Sullivan is aware of the financial challenges ahead but sees only one way forward: through community. “We’re all going to have to do our part to build this world back,” she says. “Businesses have to think not just how they’re going to survive but how they can contribute to what comes next.”
Staying true to the mission
Veteran booksellers Derrick and Ramunda Young opened the physical location of MahoganyBooks in 2017 in Washington, D.C., but they had been operating a successful internet bookstore for years, dedicated to books about African American culture and the Black diaspora. So when readers went online to find anti-racist titles after the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Derrrick Young says, “we blew up on social media because we had been doing that [technology] work already.”
It has not always been easy, however. Chronic shortages in the supply chain caused delays for anti-racist titles, and some new customers took out their frustration on the Youngs by sending angry, sometimes personally directed emails about delays.
“I saw a Black man get killed on television and I still have to show up to process orders while a part of me is mourning, and suddenly everybody wants to get a Black book,” Ramunda says. “Processing that as a Black person is a very personal experience.”
The Youngs immediately began working to keep their new customers. “It costs 10 times more to acquire a customer than to retain a customer,” Derrick says. “So now that we have these individuals, how do we talk to them where they are?”
While some Black booksellers with an influx of new white customers might feel pressure to drift away from their focus on Black literature, the Youngs have held to it, filling the MahoganyBooks website with tailored lists on Black consciousness and core Black books matter reading, a semi-regular series of book reviews from young readers, and online event programming. Through their work, they believe they can successfully show new customers the passion and power of the books at the heart of their mission.
“We’re laying the groundwork now to speak coherently, intellectually, and intentionally to both audiences without losing who we are,” Ramunda says. “We’re going to remain true to ourselves.”