It is a strange thing, but the pandemic helped to save Biblioasis’s bookshop. During fall 2019 I had decided that it was probably time to close the store. We had been losing money for several years in dribs and drabs, but in 2019 this had become a torrent, and I knew why: publishing had taken over as our primary business. I had less and less time to give the bookshop, especially in the fall, when it mattered most. Weeks went by in which I wouldn’t so much as walk through the shop’s front doors; I hadn’t worked behind the counter in years. Finding others to manage it on my behalf had not slowed the decline. Things weren’t happening as they should: we were behind on both ordering and returns, stock was getting a little stale, and the shop was neither as organized nor as clean as it should be.
We thought about selling it, or giving it to staff—anything to try and keep it around in some form. But when Christmas did not provide the usual seasonal sales infusion, the writing was on the proverbial wall: I anticipated that 2020 would be a period of winding down. We’d been booksellers in one form or another, in one place or another, for 22 years. It had been a good run, leading to a range of other opportunities and experiences, not least of which was turning Biblioasis into a publishing house.
Then the pandemic hit. We closed to the public on March 17; within a few days I was the only Biblioasis employee who was physically able to work in either workspace. I decided to set up my office in the bookshop to better manage both the store and my publishing business. A few days before we closed we were able to quickly pivot—if Oxford doesn’t choose that as their word of the year, something’s wrong—our operations toward online sales, though it had been years since we’d had any sort of online retail presence. As we brainstormed one evening about how we’d get books to customers, I thought back to the old milkmen on their rounds and decided on handling our own deliveries. We didn’t expect much to come of it, just a way to keep a little revenue flowing. But books can rarely be reduced to a mercenary calculus—every book sold seemed reason to celebrate and filled me a little bit more with hope.
News of our delivery service spread quickly, and the orders began flowing in. I hadn’t appreciated how quickly people would tire of Netflix, how insatiable the demand could be for puzzles. By month’s end we were doing dozens of deliveries each night. The days were long—14, 15, 17 hours—but they remain my favorite part of this difficult year: evenings spent racing against the sun, Wilco spinning on the car stereo as my son drove from stop to stop to stop and I ran out to climb the steps, kneel, and deliver and knock and step away. We delivered mainly to regulars at first but then increasingly to people who—for reasons of health or mobility—couldn’t have shopped with us even if they’d wanted to. Every one of them was grateful for the service.
Being in the shop day in and day out, I began to get a better sense of what was wrong with it. Any independent bookseller worth their salt knows that an excellent bookshop is 60%–75% backlist. Our own fell far below that threshold, so I ordered and replenished accordingly. As orders were placed online, I was able to take cues from our customers and fill key gaps in a way that could not have happened otherwise.
I enlisted my sons and wife to reorganize the shop, expanding our floor space by close to 60%. We used that space to order more—our inventory is approximately 40% higher than it was last year—but also to do far more face-outs, especially of books that might otherwise be overlooked. We instituted a new system for ordering, replenishment, returns, and cleaning. And as we were slowly allowed to reopen—first with curbside pickups, then private appointments, then being fully open to the public—we saw the benefits of these changes, including sales, which are currently up 80% over the same period from last year and still climbing.
On a German trade mission a couple of years ago, I saw a sign on a Suhrkamp editor’s door that I fell in love with. It read, in bright yellow letters against a blue background, “Don’t cry—work.” My staff gave me a replica of it a year ago. It sits on my desk as I write. I meditate on it daily. There are so many different ways to unpack it, though one of my favorites is that through work we often discover solutions to problems that can otherwise seem intractable.
Despairing, thinking about the fate of our bookshop, did no good at all. It was mere self-indulgence. Being thrown back into the world of the bookshop and being forced to grapple with the problems the pandemic presented, alongside all of those other preexisting ones, being forced to work through them, led to solutions I wouldn’t have settled on otherwise. It also served to remind me that we are the publishers we are because of the booksellers we were, and can be again. Bookselling is our publishing superpower: having been through the catalogs of every major English-language multinational, university, and independent press over the last three months as I put together our fall orders makes us better, more informed publishers, and it’s given us a sense of what’s missing, which will help to shape our list over the coming seasons.
I still haven’t figured out the proper balance between shop and press; the days are still very long. But I can no longer foresee a time when we close the bookstore. The work we do as booksellers matters as much as anything we do as publishers, while making us better publishers. If I lost sight of that for a while, it’s no longer the case.
Dan Wells is the publisher of Biblioasis and owner of Biblioasis Bookshop in Windsor, Ontario.