Like publishers, independent bookshops are learning to do business in the Covid-19 era, and much of what they’ve done to adapt is new, too. With the holidays ahead, PW spoke with booksellers about how they are using the fall season to prepare for an uncertain future.

Crunching the numbers

At Books with a Past, which has two locations in Howard County, Md., the balance sheet tells a powerful story of the pandemic and points to a way forward. In March, sales plummeted to nothing due to a stay-at-home order, and they took months to bounce back as the store slowly reopened. At the same time, online sales skyrocketed.

Monthly web sales were up 667% in March compared with March 2019, and they peaked in May at an increase of 1,031% over May 2019. Now that the bricks-and-mortar locations have reopened at limited capacity, in-store sales have rebounded; they were down 70% in May but only 15% in September compared with the same months last year. Meanwhile, web sales continue to be strong, up 428% in September.

“We would have been in really bad shape had we not already been moving toward an online model,” says Books with a Past owner Erin Matthews. The store relies on HandSeller, an integrated e-commerce system that lists inventory on Books with a Past’s website and uses algorithms to tailor recommendations to customer interests.

In addition to increased online sales, a grant from the Small Business Association helped offset some losses, and some employees voluntarily cut their own hours. While the shop’s two locations were closed, the landlords waived late fees on rent and utility costs. Matthews also took advantage of extended terms and discounts from vendors.

“We were very proactive about negotiating down the ‘death by a thousand cuts’ expenses,” Matthews says. With fall underway, and the doors open for foot traffic, sales are still off, but, she notes, “because our expenses are down, it doesn’t hurt as much as it might look.”

Now Matthews is warily looking ahead to the November presidential election. Howard County is about an hour from Washington, D.C., and many of her customers are federal contractors. In previous election years, she says, shoppers have held off on spending until they knew the outcome. She’s also concerned about the potential for another wave of stay-at-home orders.

Just in case, Matthews has drafted a disaster plan, which includes detailed steps for reconfiguring the store for handling web-only orders, partnership plans for community engagement, a communications strategy, and a reminder to work with employees to establish work-from-home plans. “One thing I’m aware of is how much of this experience lives in my head,” she says. “It needs to be on paper. It started out as a purely functional thing, but it’s so helpful for my peace of mind, knowing I can do it again if I have to.”

Community support

For Second Star to the Right, a children’s bookstore in Denver, closing to in-store customers in March meant shutting down a robust event series that not only generated sales but also connected young readers with the leaders of the store’s drag queen and musical storytimes. “We had to rethink events pretty quickly, and think about how to bring those events to the community,” owner Dea Lavoie says. She swiftly transitioned to virtual versions of nearly all of the store’s programming, buoyed by the eagerness of the regular event performers to take part.

Seven months later, Lavoie is continuing to embrace digital programming. In early October, she joined with booksellers from Monkey See, Monkey Do, a mobile bookstore in Western New York; Blue Manatee Literacy Project Bookstore in Cincinnati; and Politics and Prose Bookstore in Washington, D.C., to host a virtual anti-racism event.

The program, Indies Unite!, draws on lessons Lavoie has learned during months of running digital events. For instance, she says, an educational panel format is more attractive to readers than having a single author reading. Lavoie concedes that events, which are free, have yet to pay off financially in terms of book sales, but as the owner of her building, she has a layer of financial security few other booksellers do, allowing her to continue to run programs as long as there’s audience interest.

Eyeing the holidays, Lavoie plans to set up virtual handselling appointments, and between now and then, she has set up virtual book fairs with an in-store component for limited browsing. But on an emotional level, she says the departure from pre-pandemic bookselling “kind of breaks my heart,” adding, “It’s not the cozy, warm, nurturing experience that I loved, but it’s what I can do.”

All the right moves

Julie Beddingfield, who owns Inkwood Books in Haddonfield, N.J., closed her store to in-person shopping in March, five days ahead of a mandatory order from the governor. Then she wondered whether she would have to close for good. She was in the midst of renovating a new space nearby that was 40% larger than her old space. “I was having daily panic attacks,” she says.

Instead the timing turned out to be fortuitous. Beddingfield moved the store with the help of her husband and kids before renovations to the space were complete, and her new landlord did not charge her rent until June. When rent payments did start coming due, she received a town grant that covered her first two months. “That made all the difference,” she says.

By June, the spike in interest in anti-racist titles provided the sales Inkwood Books needed to move toward a fall reopening for limited in-store traffic. So did partnerships with organizations that had previously handled book sales in-house or with other vendors. Those included a popular Jewish Community Center author series, a local library author series, and school book fairs that had previously been handled by Scholastic.

The JCC series is emblematic of the new reality. Beddingfield coordinates all of the virtual sales, setting up shopping cart links and getting signed book plates from publishers, which she affixes in-store and mails to customers. The format means she doesn’t have to carry books to physical events or tote unsold copies back and return them to publishers for credit. The store sold 100 books at a recent reading by author Daniel Silva.

The new location is in fact a benefit. Though a state mandate limits the number of shoppers in the store, the extra space has proven useful for holding stock for virtual school book fairs, and for setting up a shipping and receiving area. With the holidays approaching, Beddingfield can overstock important titles, which she plans to do in case of shortages and delays.

In addition to buying additional stock, Beddingfield is encouraging customers to shop early. “The more we can spread out the whole shopping season, the better,” she says.

In March 2021, one year out from the start of the pandemic, Beddingfield plans to evaluate how things have gone and assess what the long-term future for the store can be. She says she’s already more optimistic than she was six months ago. “I liken it to childbirth. It’s super painful, but you kind of forget about that pain. Now I’m like, ‘It’s not that bad.’ ”

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