Bookish people, the stereotype goes, are introverts who prefer to stay home. So you’d think the recent social distancing measures would be a bibliophile’s dream: An excuse to read alone for weeks on end.
That’s not the case for Queen Anne Book Company bookseller Tegan Tigani, who has been working from home since March 25. During a typical shift at the bookstore, Tigani would talk books with customers all day long. Pivoting to online retailing was not in her life plan, but she’s spent most of April and May processing online orders and taking phone calls from the many die-hard QABC customers who are sticking with their neighborhood shop.
The complicated logistics of shipping books to customers is stressful. “You’ve got to be super-careful and super-focused. If you screw the order up,” Tigani tells me, “people aren’t going to get their books. And you don’t want to be one more disappointment in their lives” in the middle of a pandemic.
“I try to always add a little personality” to the transaction, Tigani says. She wrote a note, for example, to a regular customer who was sending books to her children back east. “I’ve got family on the East Coast, too, and I just hope you’re doing well,” she wrote.
The customer replied with warm thanks. “It’s making me cry now, just thinking of it,” Tigani says. “Even though we are doing this in a way that is no-touch, we still have a way to touch.”
QABC reopened for curbside service earlier this month, and Tigani’s working shifts at the shop, collecting phone orders for customers and doing some neighborhood deliveries. She’s also getting back into her role as a book buyer, trying to predict what the shopping experience will be like for customers months from now.
“Usually, you want to have appealing stacks of books” around the store, she says, because “being in a bookstore is about the experience of touching books.” But now, Tigani says she’s only ordering two copies of new titles, “so that I can have one copy face-out and one back-out so that people can see the cover and read the back cover copy without having to touch the book.”
No bookish career has gone unchanged. Before The Seattle Public Library shut down its branches on March 13, David Wright worked at the downtown branch as a reader services librarian, hosting SPL’s adult story time events and helping with outreach programs like the popular Book Bingo summer reading promotion. Wright’s job consisted of getting exciting new books into the hands of happy readers.
“Now, my day is spent mostly online,” Wright says. He stations himself “at my standing desk or, as it has become, my dancing desk. I’m answering questions, making book lists, and writing and editing blog posts.”
Wright sounds upbeat about the transition, in part because he’s keeping busy. Since the pandemic began, he says, “we signed up over 6,000 people for new digital library cards,” and library staff is busy offering tutorials for patrons who want to learn how to enjoy SPL’s large collections of digital media.
“I am so grateful to the readers of Seattle for being there for us, and it’s a joy to be able to be there for them,” he says.
One of Wright’s passions is SPL’s “Your Next 5 Books” program, “which is a service we do where readers tell us a little bit about their likes and dislikes, and we send them a hand-selected list of five titles that we think that they’ll enjoy.” Since the libraries closed, “we have done well over 800 of these personalized reading lists for readers of all ages — children, teens, adults.” (In all of 2019, for comparison, SPL staff made “just over 1500” of those recommendations.)
Wright is an enthusiastic and talented public speaker who has performed at hundreds of library events over the years. “I’m also doing some podcasting, I guess you’d say, from home,” he says. He’ll hole up in his basement “early in the morning before the leaf blowers start up” to record new installments of his Thrilling Tales lunchtime reading series. Wright recently completed an eight-part serialized reading of a 1961 science fiction story called “This World is Taboo” about an astronaut doctor visiting a quarantined planet.
Not all of Seattle’s literary workers have been as lucky as Tigani and Wright. Many booksellers lost their jobs when workplaces shut down. In July, Greg Berry will celebrate the 20th anniversary of the day he was hired at Elliott Bay Book Company. (Full disclosure: I worked with Berry at Elliott Bay from 2000 to 2008.) He’s been furloughed from the shop since the end of March.
“We closed early on [March 23], and that was our last day of being open,” Berry says. “We worked for the next week and I think we basically knew that at some point in the near future we’d be laid off. So it didn’t really come as a surprise.”
Originally, Elliott Bay’s booksellers were told they’d be off for two weeks, but the return keeps getting delayed. “We’ve sort of gotten used to pushing it further into the future at this point,” Berry says. But he’s making the most of what he jokingly refers to as his “sabbatical,” going on frequent walks and reading some of the big novels on his shelf that may have seemed too daunting in busier times.
“I’m on unemployment, and I’m getting very good benefits,” Berry says. But since the future is uncertain, “I’m being very cautious about how I spend my money, and putting some aside.”
Just before the store shut down, Elliott Bay’s booksellers voted to form a union, which was immediately recognized by management. Berry, who clarifies that he is not a spokesperson for the Book Workers Union, says the regular union meetings on Zoom have been an important way to socialize and keep in touch with co-workers. He believes the union “has been an asset to us. We can take collective action to look out for our well-being and our welfare.”
When I ask if he has a message for Seattle’s book lovers, Berry offers a warm greeting: “We look forward to seeing you return to whatever your favorite independent bookstore is. We can’t wait to see your face again.”
“Even if it has a mask on it,” he adds with a laugh.
What Seattle book workers are reading in lockdown
For readers looking for a little comfort in the pandemic, Wright, reader services librarian at Seattle Public Library, recommends Bainbridge Island author Jon Mooallem’s uplifting new nonfiction account the enormous 1964 earthquake in Anchorage, Alaska, and its aftermath, “This is Chance!” Wright says anyone looking for a reflection on “resilience in the face of disaster” will find it to be “quite enjoyable, in an it-could-be-worse kind of way.”
When he’s not devouring tomes like Robert Burton’s “The Anatomy of Melancholy” or “Gargantua and Pantagruel” by François Rabelais, Elliott Bay bookseller Berry is falling in love with an advance copy of “Cloud Atlas” author David Mitchell’s upcoming book, “Utopia Avenue.” “It’s fantastic,” Berry says. “It’s a novel about a fictitious band, set in 1967-68 London for the most part. Mitchell has done a great job of capturing that whole era of rock ’n’ roll right as it exploded.”
Tigani has been finding a lot of solace in nonfiction books about World War II right now, but her top recommendation for pandemic reading is a children’s picture book written by Davina Bell and illustrated by Allison Colpoys, “All the Ways to be Smart.” “I think right now we might feel scattered, and we might feel confused, and we might feel like we’re not doing our best job,” Tigani says. “But this book reminds you to look at and appreciate the strengths that you have.”