How Independent Booksellers are Weathering the Storms of 2020

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Pandemics, protests, and fires all over the country have impacted independent bookstores. Here’s how they’re coping and how you can support them.

By Abigail Bassett

SEP 21, 2020

As we’ve all sheltered at home across the country for the last six months, we’ve taken refuge in books. Whether you decide to purchase them online via your local bookseller or download and borrow a copy from your local library, books provide an escape and solace in times when the world gets too difficult to handle. Books can also offer us a way to connect to our fellow humans and learn more about our blind spots, passions, or an entirely new way of life. Yet, across the board, independent booksellers are struggling thanks to the variety of hits that 2020 has doled out, including the current pandemic, fires in the West, and protests all over the country.

According to NPD Group, a market research company based in New York, book sales are up a little more than five percent across the country as of August. Romance books, young adult books, and adult nonfiction lead the surge, thanks largely to the advent of the Black Lives Matter movement and the collective awakening the country is going through.

Emily Powell is the owner of Powell’s Books, the independent bookseller based in Oregon with four locations in and around Portland. She says that she saw an increased interest in both current and older fiction when the pandemic first hit.

“We saw folks looking for a way to escape,” she says, “Anything from a different time or different era sold really well. We were all part of the home craft phenomenon, so those categories shot to a new level, too.”

Chris Giaco is the owner, and as it says on his business card, the “instigator” of the small independent bookstore Page Against the Machine. Giaco describes the store as a “fiercely independent, proudly progressive activist bookstore,” based in Long Beach, California. He says that he’s seen an uptick in sales, too but in a different set of genres.

Just the act of shopping consciously and mindfully will always help small businesses.

“Early on in the pandemic, people were purchasing books on plagues and viruses in an effort to educate themselves about what was going on,” Giaco says. “After the death of George Floyd, the national discussion turned to issues of race, and the types of books customers began asking for reflected that change. With the help of social media, many worthy reading lists were circulating, and there were a handful of books on race relations and antiracism that became bestsellers and made it difficult to keep in stock.”

Both Powell and Giaco say they had to pivot and try new things to keep customers coming back since their brick and mortar stores have largely remained closed during the pandemic. Each store has approached the challenge differently, and both say that there have been some successes and failures along the way.

Getting customers to come through a virtual door

How do you keep customers coming back when they can’t physically visit your store? After all, the lure of bookstores is the experience of wandering the aisles and looking for an exciting find that might not be available at the big-box booksellers.

“We are a funny business in that we always have a very long tail,” Powell says. “Everyone is still looking for unique and interesting and special books, which we have. Yet, we, of course, like most booksellers, also rely on the next big thing — anything like that will do well. There were many of those kinds of books this summer, which has been good.”

Giaco seconds the idea that stocking the latest highly desired book is always good business. When the Black Lives Matter movement began, Page Against the Machine was well positioned to capture the attention of those hungry for social justice and discussion.

“Since Page Against The Machine is an openly activist, socially-conscious bookstore, our store already focused on subject matter such as race relations, social and political history, gender studies, and activism before these topics became more widespread nationally,” he says. “When our store first opened in April 2019, gender and feminist studies were one of our top-selling genres, and parts of those genres dovetail nicely into discussions of race and class. Similarly, books on the environment and ecology were always strong sellers for us, and we would expect that to continue, especially with the wildfires raging on the West Coast.”

Bookstores were forced to close thanks to the pandemic, and then, when things started to improve, only allowed to open on a limited basis. In some cases businesses had to reevaluate specific locations, like Powell’s did. The company decided to permanently close their airport shop. Both Powell and Giaco say that it forced them to get both more creative and focused, to continue to keep customers coming through their doors, even if those “doors” had to become virtually based.

“We had not yet been open a year when the pandemic hit and the mandated closures took effect,” Giaco says. “I used the first month of the closure to (finally) get our website up and running, which enabled us to ship orders as well as offer curbside pick-up (both of which we still offer). Before the shutdown, we regularly hosted a wide variety of events, including author readings, art exhibits, book discussion groups, and discussions and talks by a wide variety of political and social activist groups. We have not yet taken the plunge to offering virtual events, though we’ll continue to monitor the situation and might have to explore such options if the current social restrictions continue into the new year.”

Powell also says that the pandemic and shutdown was the catalyst that pushed the business to invest in the technological lift of getting all of the Powell’s inventory online. “We had a pretty strong online business already,” she says. “At the start of the pandemic, we had a ton of internet orders we weren’t prepared to meet. It took us about six weeks to work through that. We have just been doing our best to take care of employees and customers. We built all the tech ourselves, and it was a surprise we didn’t just crash.”

Powell has a long family history in the bookselling business, however, and Powell’s Books is about to celebrate its 50th year in business. “This time has forced us to think more experimentally and to say, hey, we’re just going to try something for right now,” she says. “That feels uncomfortable, and even though we are always going to educate and build cohesion and community with our stores and events, we have to get better at being a bit more flexible and saying, ok, now we are going to try something for a month, and maybe it will be good or maybe it won’t, and we’ll have to change it. I think that building that muscle is hard in a corporation, and yet, it’s not something we can do in an easier time. I think it will serve us in the long run.”

Powell says that she and her team have tried various things to keep people coming back, including the usual virtual conversations with authors, but she says they have also created new events. Most recently, Powell’s has started a fundraising effort that leverages customers’ desire to be in the store when it’s uncrowded and gives back to the community.

“We’re constantly working to find a way to stay in conversation with our community and authors, and it feels good to do that in a time when we are all so separate,” she says. “We have this store that is closed, and people really want to be in it, so we used that to help fundraise and offer customers a chance, every week, to donate money and offer to a nonprofit we choose. You are then entered into a shopping spree sweepstakes and if you win, you can make an appointment to shop the entire store while it’s closed and empty. That store is never closed. It’s open 365 days a year. We have tried to be really creative. Our primary focus is survival— and how do we connect with our community.”

Ways to help support independent bookstores

Independent bookstores are different from mainstream big-box bookstores and retailers like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Each independent bookstore has its own unique take and offerings for its specific, usually local, customer base. In independent bookstores, you’ll often find titles that may be considered too risqué, outside the “norm,” or very rare.

“Having worked for a large chain bookstore for nearly eight years, I’m in a position to see the advantages and disadvantages of both of the business models,” Giaco says. “To me, the most obvious difference is the ability of a small, independently-owned store to pivot quickly and adjust to these constantly changing circumstances. We have come to realize that our customers are, in effect, co-curators of the store. As much as we try to keep abreast of relevant and worthy titles, we are fortunate to have a very intellectually active and involved clientele that constantly turn us on to new, or forgotten, books and authors that we then integrate into our mix.

Related to that notion is the fact that most customers of a neighborhood store come from the neighborhood itself, and each neighborhood has its own unique demographic and personality. There is a social component to shopping in physical stores, bookstores especially. So people might come in to browse or shop our store just to chat, vent, or seek a little solace, which is something you can’t really do when buying a book online.”

The other thing to know about indie bookstores is that they rely primarily on local foot traffic, and, in some places like Portland, foot traffic is minimal in the current environment. “We are known for the downtown area, and it’s a great walkable and livable city,” Powell says. “Right now, you have more UPS trucks on the road than you have pedestrians.”

Portland and the surrounding area have been hit hard by the pandemic (the first patient with Covid-19 was from the Pacific Northwest), by the protests that have turned violent in the downtown area, and by the fires raging all over the western United States. Powell says she recently had to close stores that were partially open because of the dangerous air conditions resulting from the wildfires. “We just don’t know what it’s going to be from day to day,” she says.

How you can support indie bookstores now

So how can you help indie bookstores stay open and survive these challenging and changing times? For one, patronize them. Not all of them may have online portals to purchase through, but you can still call and purchase through curbside pickup. You can join their social events and attend virtual author talks online to help support them, too. You can also shop at Bookshop, which gives a portion of its profits to indie bookstores.

Our primary focus is survival— and how do we connect with our community.

There are also some larger campaigns to support local bookstores, too. Some had to turn to crowdfunding for help early on in the pandemic to survive. You can also donate to campaigns like #SaveIndieBookstores, which was put together by the American Booksellers Association, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, Reese’s Book Club, and author James Patterson.

Powell also says we need to be aware of our discount and free shipping biases. “We have all become really acclimated to the idea that a discount or free shipping is a good thing,” she says. “That discount isn’t free. That shipping isn’t free. Someone is paying for it, and in the long run, that is paid by all of us.”

You can also tell your friends and family about great indie bookstores you find, to help them generate good, old, word-of-mouth interest.

As Giaco says, “People just telling their friends, family, and neighbors about their new local discovery goes a long way. There was a noticeable increase in people walking or biking around their local neighborhood during the initial shutdown. I think many discovered businesses and other local attractions that they didn’t even know existed when they were rushing by in a car on their way to sit in a traffic-snarled freeway. I also think that just the act of shopping consciously and mindfully will always help small businesses. That doesn’t even mean that you can’t ever shop online, or on Amazon, or at a chain store, but just that you’re conscious of the opportunity to support a local, independently owned business when you can. We can’t all do the ‘right thing’ all of the time, but if a small number of us do it some of the time, it could quite easily make a significant change to our local neighborhoods and economies.”

Read my story over at Shondaland.

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Abigail Bassett is a full-time freelance journalist, content creator, and television, video, and podcast host whose work has appeared in publications like TechCrunch, Fast Company, Inc. Magazine, Forbes, Fortune, Motor Trend, Shondaland, Money Magazine, and on CNN. Her passion is telling unique stories that change the way we see, interact with, and relate to the world. She is also a Yoga Alliance Registered 500-hour yoga teacher.

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