Stranger Than Fiction

Months into the pandemic, indie booksellers grapple with the challenges of reopening

Ramsey Campbell’s novel The Overnight depicts a harrowing scenario in a Manchester bookshop. Desperate to put things in order before the owners show up for an inspection, the manager and employees grapple with one nightmare after another. There are bizarre IT problems that mess up the store’s records, sexual misconduct, a hit-and-run incident in the parking lot, and finally an infestation by demonic creatures from which the staff, locked inside overnight, cannot flee. 

We all know working in a bookstore in real life is nothing like that. It’s still a bibliophile’s dream, or at least a way to pass time, chat with strangers and friends, and make a buck or two—right?  

In the increasingly distant pre-Covid-19 days, maybe so. But now dozens of booksellers, from Seattle to Bucharest to Cape Town, have told Book and Film Globe about life in the new normal.

Seattle’s Arundel Books is one of many independent booksellers trying to balance Covid-19 safety and sales.
Safe Browsing

“Hello and Welcome! Please say ‘Hi!’ and wait here,” reads an elegant, custom-made sign greeting customers as they enter Arundel Books. Opened in 1995 by former L.A. bookseller Phil Bevis, it’s a store with an extraordinary selection of titles located off Seattle’s Pioneer Square.  

It’s a friendly message, but the sign does more than promote social niceties. It gives whoever’s at the register the chance to make sure that those who stroll in wear masks. Arundel is one of many stores that have established hand sanitizer stations, offered wipes, and posted signs reminding visitors to wear masks and limit their numbers. This is to protect both customers’ and staffers’ health. 

Of course many other types of stores have had to adapt, too. But brick-and-mortar bookshops, in which customers flip through books and then put them back on a shelf where other patrons will discover the same items, must take special steps to avert potentially lethal transmission. 

Seattle’s King County, the largest county in Washington State, established emergency shutdown orders March 16. The orders prohibited gatherings of 50 or more people and required “non-essential” businesses to close. On June 5, the county won approval for bookstores to reopen. 

Arundel Books reopened right away, with the sign from its in-house press on display. Owner Bevis is serious about safety.

The sign that greets Arundel’s customers provides a natural mask checkpoint.

“It’s against the law in our state to let you in our store if you’re not wearing a mask. So, stop and say ‘Hi!’ This policy lets us get an eyeball on folks who aren’t concerned about others’ health. Put on your mask or leave, period. Hanging it under your chin doesn’t count,” Bevis says. 

When it comes to wearing masks, Seattle is reportedly highly compliant, and most visitors to Arundel Books don’t need any reminder. In those rare cases where someone doesn’t get it, Bevis is happy to remind that visitor of an infamous choir practice incident, reported on the CDC’s website, where failure to wear masks led to the superspreading of the virus from one member of a choir to 52 others, resulting in hospitalizations and two deaths. 

“The vast majority of people completely get it. As for other folks, they’re welcome to shop on our website. We’ll talk to them on the phone,” Bevis says.

Bevis’ challenges are representative of those faced by booksellers all over.

Another Seattle store, Magus Books, closed from March 26 through June 5 and now welcomes visitors wearing masks. Located by the University of Washington campus, Magus Books occupies a much vaster space than Arundel. Co-owner Hanna McElroy says that customers are limited to 18, but it’s rare to have that many in the store. While supportive of Gov. Jay Inslee’s approach to reopening, McElroy says it would be nice to have additional masks on hand. 

“We are expected to police the use of masks by our customers, and it would be great to have more, versus just kicking people out who don’t wear them,” McElroy says. 

This policing role adds to the burdens of employees who must wear masks nonstop eight hours a day. “I try to stay upbeat and find humor in the everyday,” she says. 

Further adding to the challenge is the absence of financial support the government briefly extended to small business owners in the pandemic’s early days. 

“We received a grant from the city in March, but it didn’t go far. Almost every small business owner I know has received a federal PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loan, but we are starting to run out of those funds and the bill to allow a second loan for businesses has not passed Congress yet,” McElroy observes.

Steve Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, describes a robust culture of compliance in his store.

“Work stations are assigned to one person at a time and cleaned regularly. Everyone inside the store has to wear masks at all times and maintain six feet of distance. We are promoting cashless transactions, paying online or over the phone or with touchless credit card/bank apps,” he says.

Wear a Mask? Sez Who? 

In other parts of the country, recalcitrance toward masks makes the lives of booksellers  even harder. 

“We were closed until mid-June. We opened up for a few days but had to argue with so many customers refusing to wear masks that we shut back down. Since then we have been opening by appointment only,” says April Childers, co-owner of The Paradox Bookstore in Wheeling, W.V. 

The Paradox Bookstore is small, and Childers runs it solo. She describes herself as severely immunocompromised due to multiple sclerosis and chemotherapy, making it even more out of the question for people to enter without masks. 

In Ohio, it’s mandatory to wear face masks in public. Kim Steinsiek, owner of Duttonhofer’s Books in Cincinnati, preempts any arguments by keeping the front door locked with a sign in place asking customers to knock. Prior to the mask mandate, Steinsiek says, she and her staff hurriedly bought disposable masks and offered them to customers for $2 or for free with any purchase.

“That got me a piece of unsigned, scrawled hate mail saying we were money-hungry,” recalls Steinsiek, noting that she was able to drop the policy when the mandate required masks. 

Even if people comply, it’s not easy pursuing what was already a difficult business model before the pandemic hit.

“Masks, sanitizers, and wipes are just another way the costs of doing business go up while sales go down. Bookstores are in an even more precarious position than they already were,” Steinsiek says. 

Double Standards?

Adding insult to injury, some booksellers say, is the unfair and arbitrary application of Covid-19 rules. Rob Nelson, owner of The Village Booksmith in Baraboo, Wis., which closed from March 25 through May 11, voiced frustration that regulations permitted some ostensibly essential “big box” stores to stay open, even though they didn’t take any additional precautions. (Liquor stores, for example.)  

“Our position was that the government should not classify businesses as ‘essential’ or not, but rather, set expectations for safe operation, and allow any store that could meet those standards to operate,” Nelson says. Nelson finds it particularly galling that Amazon could ship items across the country from warehouses where an unknown number of people might have touched or breathed on the items. But stores like his, where employees carefully followed safe practices, couldn’t even have a staff member place a book in a bag and leave it for outside pickup. 

Nialle Sylvan, owner of the Haunted Bookshop in Iowa City, gives an eloquent explanation for why her store, which closed on March 16, has yet to reopen: It’s a lack of strong and decisive political leadership during this time of crisis, she says. In Sylvan’s view, the “Step Up and Be Responsible” program touted by Gov. Kim Reynolds hardly counts as coherent policy. 

“It’s basically a suggestion that people avoid getting sick by whatever means they think won’t violate their freedoms. That’s not a kind reading of the program, but it’s a real one.”

Reynolds’s policy doesn’t really point the way forward for stores like Sylvan’s, which operate in an environment where some people just aren’t playing it safe. By Sylvan’s estimate, fewer than 20 percent of people in the Haunted Bookshop’s neighborhood are wearing any facial protection at all. Her store is small and does not have a staging area for incoming stock.

Sales Nosedive

Amazon already complicated things for booksellers. Now independent stores’ sales have taken a massive hit from the pandemic.

“We were closed for nearly three months from late March until mid-June. We had online sales during the shutdown, which amounted to about a quarter of usual sales,” says Miles Bellamy, owner of Spoonbill & Sugartown in the Williamsburg neighborhood of Brooklyn. The ebbing of sales compounds some of the chronic issues with which indie booksellers are familiar, he says.

“Business was hard enough before the pandemic, and we have no security going forward if landlords return to demanding full rent and sales are not back up to past levels or better,” Bellamy says.

San Francisco’s famous City Lights bookstore offered curbside and online sales when it couldn’t open doors to browsers. But it still suffered significant financial losses.

City Lights, the legendary San Francisco bookstore co-founded by beat poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti, closed on March 16 in compliance with Mayor London Breed’s citywide shelter-in-place order. The store began curbside pickups on May 20 and reopened to the public on June 15. Though customers are fiercely loyal, online sales did not buoy the store’s finances during the shutdown. 

“We did not feel it was ethical to ask our staff to come to the bookstore to fulfill orders during shelter-in-place, and we didn’t have the systems in place to process payments remotely for ‘direct-to-home’ fulfillment,” says Elaine Katzenberger, City Lights’ publisher and CEO. “This was a real handicap, and we had zero income for that entire period from March 17 to May 20 as a result.”

The Strand Bookstore in New York had a roughly overlapping period of shutdown, from March 16 to June 22. It took nearly a month before staffers were able to reconfigure the store’s website so as to provide customers with a mobile-friendly way to order books, says Nancy Bass Wyden, The Strand’s owner. The store also designed and put on the market three styles of branded masks and donated part of the proceeds to the anti-poverty Robin Hood Foundation

The Strand typically hosted more than 400 in-store literary events per year. Unlike many stores, it has forged ahead with a busy virtual events program, one highlight of which was the popular vloggers Hank Green and John Green discussing Hank Green’s novel A Beautifully Foolish Endeavor on July 6. On July 21, the bookstore streamed Oliver Stone in conversation with actor Ethan Hawke about Stone’s new memoir, Chasing the Light. The Strand also just opened a new Columbus Avenue branch.

“The regulations are costly and time-consuming. But we will do whatever it takes to keep our employees and customers safe and feeling safe enough to get lost in our stacks,” Wyden says.

Those who imagine that selling online might be a panacea for stores may not see the full picture. Apart from the logistical nightmare of having to list potentially hundreds of thousands of titles online with limited staff, some booksellers just aren’t ready to cede the fight with Amazon.

The Haunted Bookstore doesn’t list on Amazon, Sylvan says. Her reasons go beyond the monthly charge for a seller account and the as much as 25 percent in fees that Amazon takes. “I don’t want to support the company, its abuse of municipal and state taxation, its monopsonic grip on the American marketplace, its crappy treatment of the workers who could have fun, meaningful, and wage-based (not contract) jobs in locally owned shops,” Sylvan says, expressing views echoed by many other indie booksellers and in findings published by the American Booksellers Association. Sylvan has fewer reservations about Alibris and Biblio, and does list inventory on those sites.

Looking Abroad

The slump felt in Brooklyn is hardly less severe in other parts of the world. André Sales, a bookseller at Clarke’s Bookshop in Cape Town, South Africa, describes how his store closed on March 27 and ceased both on-site and online sales in compliance with government orders. 

“South African lockdown regulations have been maddeningly specific and vague at the same time,” Sales says.

Unable to sell books, the store asked customers to buy vouchers that they could redeem after the lockdown. At the beginning of May, the government permitted sales of “educational” books to resume. Clarke’s Bookshop got back in the game by successfully arguing that all books are educational. 

“I think the government has an unenviable job trying to juggle economic sustainability and the health crisis. They’ve made a lot of blunders but I think it’s slowly smoothing out,” Sales says. 

Unfortunately, business is far from what it was. South African ports are clogged, Sales observes, and imports and exports are drastically curtailed. Clarke’s Bookshop has relied on private courier and airmail services, which have made shipping almost prohibitively expensive.

In other countries, online sales and events have been uninterrupted. The Carturesti bookstore chain in Romania, a country with a patchwork of different regulations, had to close some of its 37  branches longer than others depending on their location. Reopenings happened in two waves, on May 15 and June 15, says Oana Dumitru, Carturesti’s events director. But online sales never paused.

“Even so, we managed to reach only 30 percent of our regular sales target during the shutdown,” Dumitru reports, in spite of spirited efforts on the online front. These included promotions directed at specially designed markets such as parents working at home with small children, teens in need of diversions while stuck at home, and curious readers interested in the historical framework in which to look at the pandemic. Carturesti also offered Zoom sessions with Romanian writers, online book launches, readings aimed at small children, and even online therapy sessions. 

Faced with the temporary shutdown of one of its U.K.-based suppliers of foreign books, Carturesti managed to extract books from closed outlets and transfer them to a warehouse to await processing for online orders.

When it comes to helping out booksellers, Dumitru thinks the Romanian government fell short of its European counterparts. She favors a support package that includes rent relief for the months bookstores closed, a voucher program for teachers and students, and grants for booksellers, among other measures.

Silver Linings
Vermont’s Speaking Volumes weathered the pandemic with a steady (and safe) stream of customers.

Not all booksellers say their sales have plunged. Some are lucky enough to have highly loyal bases of customers. Lucy Drummond, manager of Speaking Volumes in Burlington, Vt., which reopened May 18, acknowledges that the ample free time some people have had to devote to reading during and since the shutdown has helped online sales. Reopening has gone fairly well for some Vermont businesses, and the tightness of local communities may be one reason. 

“It was pretty well known in the area that most stores would be reopening, and we had customers calling: ‘Can I come?’ Everyone was very respectful of the precautions, and we haven’t had any issues around people not wearing masks,” Drummond says.

Franlee Frank, owner of Greenwood Books in Rochester, N.Y., said his enlightened customers follow safe practices. 

“During the closure, not only did I increase my online book offers, but I spent many hours freshening the shelves with books I have in overstock, cleaning the shelves, and changing around some sections. Occasionally someone would order on the phone or by email and we would either arrange a handover by hanging the book on my door or I would leave it on the customer’s porch,” Frank says.

Rick Jacobs, co-owner of The Book Deal in Madison, Wis., describes a massive show of support from customers after the store’s two-month closure. Jacobs and his colleagues turned the store’s “Mystery Genre Sale” into a virtual event and posted pictures of available titles on social media.  

“Our customers really stepped up to support us. We sold hundreds of books in the first 24 hours and made enough to cover an entire month’s rent in one day. This was a huge relief, taking some of the financial stress off of doing the right thing,” Jacobs says. 

City Lights’ Katzenberger appreciates the many customers who have made their deep loyalties evident. 

“We all feel like we’re entering a sanctuary of sanity when we get to the bookstore, and we have many, many customers who feel the same and tell us so,” Katzenberger says. “We are thanked daily for being open, and it feels like a public service to provide an island of intelligence and culture where folks can be quiet a while and relax into something bigger and better than what’s happening outside on the street right now. People love coming to City Lights.”

Mayhem All Around

The conclusion takes us full circle back to Seattle, where some booksellers struggle with a double punch of the pandemic and civil unrest. One bookseller on Capitol Hill, in the zone formerly designated as CHAZ/CHOP, spoke to this writer on condition of anonymity because of threats that some protesters and homeless people have made against her business. “I’m not going to be a target of violence by someone who’s mad at me,” the owner says. 

But violence can be hard to avoid in the current climate. A homeless man hurled a ceramic dish at a window of her store, she says, adding that police sometimes seem to lack the resolve to intervene. 

“There are hangers-on who are mentally ill, and they’ll remember that I threw them out nine years ago for stealing something, and they’ll decide this is the time to take my windows out,” the owner says. Depression keeps some of her employees home, she says, so she’s handling a nearly impossible situation mostly solo. 

“My landlord has not given me a rent break. I had five employees coming into this, and now we’re at about half strength,” the owner confides.

The Last Word

Maybe the last word should go to someone who’s been in the fight longer than most. City Lights co-founder Lawrence Ferlinghetti, who turned 101 on March 24, published his memoir, Little Boy, in 2019, before anyone had heard of Covid-19. 

On page 63 of this memoir, which is written in a stream-of-consciousness style nearly free of punctuation, Ferlinghetti states, “Life goes on and will go on even in the worst adversity and will go on with so many human emotions so many lovers pining for each other so many tears and so much singing and sighing so much fighting and killing and so many flights of fancy and flights of fear and so much camaraderie and solidarity in spite of all in the face of total annihilation.” 

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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).

One thought on “Stranger Than Fiction

  • August 6, 2020 at 10:54 am
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    A very well researched and thought out article. It’s very helpful to learn what other booksellers are facing – thanks to everyone for sharing what’s happening with their stores and Michael for you doing this research. Seems like there is some hope out there, let’s hope customers remain loyal to their small sellers.

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