Restaurants, during these pandemic times, have turned to takeout. Bookstores have too.
This month, after getting approval to do so from the governor’s office after a seven-week closure, many of the Seattle area’s independent bookstores have opened for curbside service. It works just like takeout: You order via the store’s website — or, if you don’t know what you want, call or email the store asking for recommendations — and drop by the store later to pick it up, at an appointed time. And while you don’t enter and browse, or have close contact with the employee who brings your order out, you do get, very quickly, a new book or two.
And that, in these strange days, is progress; a way to keep books flowing to customers — and to keep a business, however perilously, afloat. (It also, quite possibly, will be the quickest way to get a book these days. Those who normally get books on Amazon may have seen delays, as the online giant struggles to prioritize essential shipments during the pandemic.)
Nonetheless, a neighborhood bookstore isn’t truly a neighborhood bookstore unless it can welcome its customers in, and when and how that might happen remains a question mark. Currently, according to guidelines from the governor’s office, the earliest that King County retail stores can hope to reopen to customers, in partial capacity, is June 1. That date could change, and specific guidelines for opening have not yet been announced. What’s certain is that with social distancing, a visit to a bookstore in the near future will feel different, and might remain that way for a while. Local bookstore owners anticipate that, at least in the near future, many author visits will be virtual, book clubs will move online, and newly opened stores might be quieter, with carefully spaced customers.
But many local booksellers also emphasized that they have been moved by shows of support for their stores during the pandemic, and that they believe that their customers will return. “I think people are looking for community now more than ever,” said Dan Ullom, owner of Brick & Mortar Books in Redmond, in an email. “It may take a while before things are 100% back to normal, though when they are, we know that indie bookstores will thrive again.”
In more normal times, bookstores are a tactile experience; you wander through, seeing what titles catch your eye, idly flipping through a volume before putting it back. And then, back in March, that changed: Doors closed, and bookstores had to transform themselves into online businesses. Some were already set up for e-commerce, though it wasn’t a focus.
“We’re not an online business — all the indie bookstores, we’re all trying to figure out how to do this and do it well,” said Laurie Raisys, owner of Island Books on Mercer Island. “We obviously don’t want to be too good at it. We want people to come in the door, we want to sell them books — hand them the book and say, this book I loved.”
Tracy Taylor, manager of Elliott Bay Book Company, said she and her staff were surprised both by the initial jump in online business once the store’s doors closed, and by the steadiness of its rate thereafter. “It’s been consistent for the entire seven weeks,” she said. “We thought there would be a drop as people got laid off and the economy started to change, but we haven’t seen it.”
Some local stores that didn’t have e-commerce already, such as Paper Boat Booksellers, hurried to remake their websites so readers could order online. Others, such as Magnolia’s Bookstore and Page 2 Books, turned to bookshop.org, an online fulfillment center which has a mission of supporting local independent bookstores.
But online orders can’t fully sustain a bookstore accustomed to walk-in business, particularly when all events that gather readers and potential book buyers together — author appearances, in-store book clubs and the massive book party that is Seattle Independent Bookstore Day — have been canceled. Booksellers contacted for this story gave estimates of their online business as ranging from 20 to 60% of normal income.
And, Taylor explained, online purchases cost the store more: Sending books directly from the distributor requires the store paying an extra charge, and shipping adds to the cost. (Many of the stores are offering free shipping to encourage book buying during this time, which cuts into profit margins.)
But, in the age of Amazon, independent booksellers are accustomed to finding creative ways to survive. Third Place Books has sold hundreds of its “Shelter in Place” (with a book) T-shirts and hoodies. Ada’s Technical Books and Café opened a Pop-Up Pi(e) Shop, selling fresh-baked pies and other food items from its cafe, to which customers can also add book or puzzle orders. Many stores offer free delivery of books within their neighborhoods.
And bookstores are often much more than just a place to buy a book; they’re active, supportive members of a community. A remarkable demonstration of that community: countless local bookstore patrons, during a time when many households are in economic distress, have stepped up to support their stores’ charitable efforts.
Book Larder, which specializes in cookbooks, raised money to buy meals for workers at Harborview Medical Center. Ullom, at Brick & Mortar, said that thanks to donations from customers and local authors, the store has a fund of over $4,000 to be spent on book donations for community members in need.
In March, Third Place Books kicked off an effort to bring books to students impacted by school closures, and has raised nearly $20,000 as of this writing. The money translates to book purchases (Third Place sells them at a discount) that are then distributed via the Seattle, Shoreline and Northshore public school districts and the nonprofits Page Ahead and Reading Partners. Niki Marion, the Third Place children’s outreach manager, estimated that about 1,000 books have been distributed.
“When we first started, our goal was $5,000,” she said, earlier this month. “Now that we’ve hit $15,000, I anticipate us being able to donate many, many more.” The program will run as long as it’s needed, she said. “As long as people are willing to donate money, for us to get books into the hands of the students who need them, I’m happy to continue doing this.”
Curbside service is a step toward reopening, but having customers back in the stores will require careful planning and new procedures. Raisys, at Island Books, is mulling over a number of possible strategies.
“I think it will happen in small increments,” she said. “It might be by appointment for a little while, it might be you can have senior hours in the morning. There’s obviously a lot of work to be done within the store, maybe putting Plexiglas up in front of the registers, so not so much contact.” She’s thinking about guidelines for masks, hand sanitizer, “maybe gloves if people want them.” Like all of the booksellers, she’s awaiting specific guidelines from the governor’s office.
In the meantime, as local bookstores work on fine-tuning the details of curbside pickup and socially distant book ordering, they’re heartened by still being able to connect with customers — many of whom have been including messages of support on online orders.
“It’s been really overwhelming,” said Taylor of the messages. “To read how much people miss walking into our store, and how they can’t wait to come back, and to know that a lot of the orders are intentionally to support us and keep us going … has just meant the world. It’s not fun doing data entry and filling internet orders — it’s not what we signed up to do — and that has kept us going on some bad days.”