The Little Bookshop That Could (Or Couldn’t)

Loyal customers rush to help indie booksellers in the time of COVID-19, but the real existential menace looms

The news that one of Paris’s most beloved booksellers, Gibert Jeune, has decided to close its store in the Latin Quarter in March, after months of dismal sales, drives home once again the reality that few ventures are as tough right now as selling books through brick-and-mortar venues.

A recent article in the Guardian states that the pandemic brought sales down 60 percent at the Gibert Jeune outlet at 5 Place Saint-Michel, and the building’s owner chose to sell. The article’s depiction of the bookstore as yet another victim of Covid-19 feeds a familiar, even oddly comforting, narrative. Covid-19 comes in handy as a scapegoat. Industries are ailing everywhere as a result of social distancing, staying at home, and lockdowns, you see. As sad as this news is, there’s no reason to expect bookstores’ woes to last beyond the end of the pandemic or to examine deep, lasting, structural ills in this industry. So relax and don’t fret too much over the awful news.

But there’s a lot more going on here. Way down in the sixth paragraph, the Guardian article alludes to rising rents that forced another iconic bookshop, Boulinier, to pack up and leave its longtime address, and briefly admits that the virus is not the only culprit. “Gibert Jeune and its sister company Gibert Joseph have also been slow to react to the threat of Amazon; while the French secondhand book market is booming … trade has mostly been captured by online platforms.”

You might say that.

Now, to be sure, the pandemic has walloped indie booksellers. Not nearly as many people are wandering in off the street to browse the aisles and pick up a book of poetry or a novel or a work of history or to attend a reading by a local author. The tragedy here is that booksellers have responded with a show of ingenuity, resourcefulness, and grit that could serve as a model for any industry on the skids, and in some cases have succeeded in mobilizing a small loyal base of patrons, but the most heroic efforts to fight through the pandemic and bounce back are futile in the face of the real predator. Amazon, and tax laws favoring the titan over smaller competitors, should be in the lead of any article that purports to explain booksellers’ woes.

Ingenuity and daring

Over and over, indie booksellers have shown a knack for adapting to the fickle whims of fate.

Capitol Hill Books operates out of an old row house in the Eastern Market area of Washington. Given the smallness of the space, the managers have had to limit browsing to four people at a time, by appointment only, ever since the pandemic struck. Hence only a handful of people enter the store on a given day. But the staff have made up for this by doing curbside sales when weather permits and by putting together and mailing out grab bags featuring books in the genres for which customers have voiced a preference. The sale of rare books online goes along at more or less normal levels. For all the hardships, it’s not the pandemic that is choking the life out of stores like this one.

“As long as companies like Amazon are getting enormous tax breaks and consolidating their power in the publishing industry while independent booksellers are faced with increasing costs every year—from property tax hikes, for example—it is going to be tough for local bookstores to keep pace,” says Kyle Burk, owner of Capitol Hill Books. Burk urges policymakers to ponder carefully what they think cities should look like. The survival of stylish, locally owned businesses is in grave danger.

While the recent decision of Powell’s Books to stop selling on Amazon is all well and good, not all booksellers have an operation nearly the size of the revered Portland company, Burk says. “I don’t hold it against small bookstores that sell on Amazon because they need access to the marketplace and Amazon has a stranglehold on it. Independent booksellers are operating within a power dynamic that is heavily skewed against them,” Burk adds.

No one denies the impact of COVID-19, but it can be a distraction from deep structural issues within the industry that are either related in some way to the dominance of the many-headed Amazon hydra or manifestations of just that.

Tom Lowenburg, owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans, describes a show of support from local customers who appreciate the value that a store with a unique identity brings. He buttresses Burke’s comments by alluding to recent news about Amazon’s endless expansion and conquest. On December 22, Louisiana’s governor announced that the retail giant would build the state’s first fulfillment center in Lafayette Parish, a project expected to bring swarms of delivery vans while adding at least 500 jobs in the area. That might sound like a blessing, but indie booksellers look at the world through a certain lens. “They are not creating jobs, they are taking them away. In no way do they deserve any public subsidy. And, on a federal level, anti-trust action is called for,” Lowenburg says.

Other stores in the state also enjoy a strong response from a core of loyal customers.

“We have absolutely seen an outpouring of support from our customers. They have continued to make it a point to shop with us throughout the pandemic and to support us in all the new strategies we’ve tried,” says John Cavalier, owner of Cavalier House Books in Dedham Springs, Louisiana. While some people go online when they have a specific book that they want to buy in mind, others visit the store in person, to enjoy what is irreplaceable about the experience, namely the spontaneity of literary discovery.

“Underneath COVID-19, there are a lot of book industry practices, legacy institutions, and homogeneity within the business model of the indie bookstore that contribute to the shakiness of some businesses,” Cavalier says. “I believe the success or failure of most shops is directly related to the degree to which shops have modernized and remained lean in the face of ever greater and more widespread industry consolidation.”

In Cavalier’s analysis, some indie booksellers tend to rely too much on blanket returns of inventory when the “stack and sell” approach doesn’t work as well as they had hoped. This, too, is partly a consequence of having to compete with a ubiquitous online giant. “With Amazon being such a leviathan, you have to use as many tactics as possible in order to compete, and returnability is an ever-present tactic for an independent bookstore to bolster cash flow and turn inventory,” he says.

For booksellers trying desperately to stay alive in the age of Amazon, little help is coming from the federal level, where a PPP program devolved into a bureaucratic morass from the get-go. Cavalier cites a disorganized application process, unclear requirements for documentation, and frequent changes to the rules while applications were underway as factors making the program less than a salve.

Loyal patrons

The urge to stay at home may be strong, yet bookstores all over have marshaled amazing shows of support from some customers.

“Our customers have been great,” says Becky Garcia, manager of Malvern Books in Austin, Texas. Garcia’s store was closed from March through May and then opened in June for curbside pickup. Support ran high and in October, Malvern Books opened for scheduled visits. As Covid-19 hit back with a vengeance over the winter, the store reverted to curbside pickup on January 1, but it has carried on a program of virtual readings and book club meetings, as well as providing suggestions online for people wondering what to read. “Our business is definitely below what it has been, but we are fortunate that our customers are still shopping with us and we are doing okay,” Garcia says.

Bookshop

Nancy Bass Wyden, owner of the Strand, acknowledges that the pandemic has posed a massive challenge. “Over the past year, we experienced an unprecedented drop is business, resulting in layoffs, a first in our history,” Wyden says.

Feeling that there were no other options, Wyden wrote an open letter to the book-buying public in October 2020, with pretty astonishing results. Online orders shot up so high that they crashed the site. Lines of bibliophiles snaked around the corner outside the Strand’s 12th Street storefront. Customers sent in stories of purchases they had made at the Strand years before and described the store’s place in their minds and hearts. Wyden and her staff began to offer private tours of the rare book room on the Strand’s third floor and introduced Pick of the Month, a program through which customers can have signed first editions shipped directly to them.

“In the past, Amazon’s effect was not a huge concern to us. Our unique in-store experience and robust events programming meant we had a human touch that a corporate giant couldn’t replicate,” Wyden says.

In San Francisco, City Lights is planning a rollout of a new website to replace one that currently accounts for an estimated ten to fifteen percent of the store’s total sales. The store reopened to the public last June 15 after doing curbside pickups for several weeks. Co-founded by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, City Lights occupies a unique place in local and literary history and has too many loyal patrons for the pandemic alone to defeat it. Elaine Katzenberger, director of City Lights, acknowledged Amazon as the chronic problem. “Their business practices have hurt our industry from day one of their existence, and that has not changed. The threat they pose is greater when there is greater threat in general,” she says.

The View from the North

In Canada, some bookstores are doing remarkably well. Susan Hare, co-owner of Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary, says that sales have been higher during the pandemic than they were before. Customers have turned out in force, and the Canadian government has come through with grants to help independent stores market Canadian authors. Once again, the bookseller displayed resourcefulness when put to the test. “With a very strong shop local movement, and a colleague who is a whiz at social media, we were able to get the word out that we could help with curbside pickup and free home deliveries within Calgary,” Hare says.

But these successes should not distract anyone from chronic structural issues facing Hare and others. In the fall of 2019, property taxes nearly drove Hare out of business. Her store was at a marked disadvantage compared to Amazon. Hare and her colleagues launched a program through which people could buy hundred-dollar sponsorships, and with luck their press release went out on the very day that property taxes were under discussion in City Hall. Owl’s Nest Books was lucky. Other stores competing with Amazon are not.

Booksellers’ stories remind us that they have no shortage of ingenuity when it comes to navigating even the calamity of Covid-19. All other things being equal, lots of them would be getting through the pandemic okay. It is Amazon that compounds the crisis and threatens to make all the efforts for naught.

Just look at how bookstores are faring in those parts of the world where Amazon so far has little or no presence at all.

Off the beaten path
Bookshop
Librarie Livremoi, in Casablanca, Morocco (courtesy of Matthieu Malan).

You can’t get away from the coronavirus by going to Morocco, but you can at least partly elude Amazon. You may find that even bookstores in urban centers fighting to deter the virus are doing well without the online titan breathing down their neck. The bookstore LivreMoi in Casablanca has been doing brisk business. In a sense, it is the customers who have authority, says co-founder Matthieu Malan.

They have taken on the responsibility of looking out for each other and encouraging safe behavior. If anything, the pandemic has been a boon for booksellers in the North African nation, except during a period from March to June when bookstores were partly shut down. Besides that inconvenience, the need to stay at home has fueled the literary appetites and passions of the public, and sales now are at peak, particularly when it comes to books for kids. Adults in Casablanca are using their leisure time to read all kinds of literature in Moroccan, French, English, and other tongues.

In the remote town of Broken Hill, in New South Wales, Australia, one part-time worker and several volunteers run an indie bookstore, Under the Silver Tree, whose inventory consists mostly of donated books. With the local library closed, an influx of customers brought a modest rise in sales. The bookstore has also benefited from a rise in tourism within Australia as travel bans precluded taking trips abroad.

“Tourists are usually good for business, but last year was better than most,” says owner Jean Farry. The government has also helped out with loans and job keeper payments of roughly $600 per week.

“We sold both in the shop and online, probably more in the shop. While we were shut for two months, we took orders by phone and delivered them or customers picked them up outside the shop,” Farry says, adding that besides thrillers and crime novels, books on the Outback and aboriginal culture have sold especially well.

Under the Silver Tree Bookshop in Broken Hill, Australia courtesy of Robynne Farry).

Outsiders may wonder what could account for the success and staying power of a little bookshop in such a remote part of the world.

“I don’t believe Amazon affects our business. I believe Amazon would have a huge advantage selling books in this area because Book Depository doesn’t charge for postage. That said, quite a few people make an effort to use an Australian bookshop,” Farry says.

If only such motives were more universal. Fortunately, some other bookstores in Australia have benefited from similar cultural impulses and drives. Red Kangaroo Books, in the remote town of Alice Springs in the Northern Territory, specializes in books on Australian topics, and in particular the history, culture, and art of aboriginal Australians. There are books in dialects most English-speakers have never heard of. In March 2020, the pandemic had a terrible impact until a kind of negative reaction occurred and customers jumped into the breach.

“Local customers shopped with the intention of supporting our business. There has been a big campaign to encourage people to shop local. Our business has been quite steady overall,” says Bronwyn Druce, manager of Red Kangaroo Books.

Fiction sales have gone up and Druce has launched an online book club which has done quite well. With lockdowns in effect, people who otherwise would have traveled in January 2021 stayed around, and relationships with readers in town and around central Australia have grown, Druce says.

“Customers often buy books via our online store and then pick up the books from our shop. Interstate customers also shop from us online. They usually buy hard-to-find titles that they cannot find elsewhere. We also get inquiries from overseas, but the postage cost is high,” Druce adds.

Like bookstores in other parts of the world, those in remote parts of Australia have put ingenuity to work to make it through the pandemic. They have fared better than many, and the reason is not far to seek.

“Amazon has a much greater overall negative impact. Covid-19 will disappear eventually,” affirms Kirsten Thomsen, general manager of Elizabeth’s Bookshops, which has branches in Fremantle and Perth in Western Australia and Newtown in New South Wales. “Amazon’s gigantic presence with significant tax advantages hurts small independent booksellers,” she acknowledges.

The shape of things to come

From the point of view of booksellers, the news that Jeff Bezos is stepping down as CEO of Amazon, but moving into a high-level executive position crafted specially for him, is neither here nor there. The online titan is likely to continue sidelining small indie players even as it steps up its focus in areas like cloud computing and the development of spacecraft. If there is a flicker of hope for booksellers, perhaps they can find it, ironically enough, in the words of Bezos himself in the article linked in this paragraph. “If you do it right, a few years after a surprising invention, the thing has become normal. People yawn. That yawn is the greatest compliment an inventor can receive,” Bezos said in an earnings release.

And with the yawns, perhaps more people will decide that buying books through Amazon is not the greatest experience ever, and that they should reward indie bookstores for their resilience and ingenuity in the face of the global crisis, and will engage much more in the retro activity of exploring bookstores in person in the hope of discovering books that will leave them forever changed.

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Michael Washburn

Michael Washburn is a Brooklyn-based writer and journalist and the author, most recently, of The Uprooted and Other Stories (2018), When We're Grownups (2019), and Stranger, Stranger (2020).

3 thoughts on “The Little Bookshop That Could (Or Couldn’t)

  • February 9, 2021 at 9:25 pm
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    I appreciated reading “The Little Bookshop That Could (Or Couldn’t)” and it inspired me to plan a trip to my local indie book store. After all, I too have been guilty of ordering from Amazon without considering the full effect on independent bookstores. The article also offers a window into an international experience by highlighting some notable and resilient bookstores from around the world. Michael’s writing is captivating and well-researched.

    Reply
  • February 22, 2021 at 3:11 pm
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    Thank you for this thoughtful and thought-invoking article. Living in rural areas over the past 20 years, Amazon has been a Godsend, but there is NOTHING like browsing through a bookstore for a few hours discovering books I didn’t intend to buy and spending far too much of my paycheck. I too have ordered my fair share of books from Amazon—largely because the local bookstores closed—but will make an effort to find and support indie bookstores in my new state. Thank you for reminding me of why this is so important. One of my favorites from my L.A. days was Vroman’s in Pasadena. I just checked online; they are still there.

    Reply
  • February 22, 2021 at 4:27 pm
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    Many thanks for your thoughtful comments, Linda.

    Reply

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