Seattle Independent Bookstore Day is back — but, like so many things during this transitional time of the pandemic, it’s going to look a little bit different.

For five years pre-pandemic, SIBD (part of a national celebration of independent bookstores that typically takes place on the last Saturday in April) was a delightfully crowded, literary version of “The Amazing Race”: You’d get up early and rush to bookstores all day, 21 of them in total, in order to claim the title of Bookstore Champion and the irresistible prize of a yearlong discount in all the stores. (As a three-time Bookstore Champion myself, I know of what I speak.) Long lines would form outside the stores; early ferries would be full of eager book lovers; and there was a festive party atmosphere all day that celebrated the joy of buying books in a neighborhood store. The event began in 2015 and got bigger every year — and then, in 2020, had to be canceled entirely.

Now there’s no less cause for celebration — how lucky are we that nearly every store that participated back in 2019 is still in business, with one more, Paper Boat Booksellers in West Seattle, added? (Only The Traveler on Bainbridge Island, which sold travel equipment and books, has closed its doors.) But it’s too soon to encourage crowds, and so the SIBD committee has come up with a new, pandemic-friendly concept: the 10-10-10 Challenge, in which patrons have 10 days (April 24-May 3) to visit 10 of the 21 participating bookstores, either in person or online, and make 10 purchases. Winners will, after submitting receipts, receive a limited-edition 2021 SIBD tote bag.

The following are the local bookstores participating: Ada’s Technical Books, Arundel Books, Book Larder, BookTree (Kirkland), Brick & Mortar Books (Redmond), Eagle Harbor Book Co. (Bainbridge Island), Edmonds Bookshop, Elliott Bay Book Co., Fantagraphics Bookstore, Island Books (Mercer Island), Liberty Bay Books (Poulsbo), Magnolia’s Bookstore, Neverending Bookshop (Edmonds), Open Books: A Poetry Emporium, Paper Boat Booksellers, Page 2 Books (Burien), Phinney Books/Madison Books, Queen Anne Book Co., Secret Garden Books, Third Place Books (Lake Forest Park, Ravenna, Seward Park), University Bookstore.

Answers to some obvious questions about the 10-10-10 Challenge: Yes, you do have to make a purchase in each of 10 stores (in person or online), but there’s no minimum amount; any purchase will do. (Note that a number of the stores included sell inexpensive used books, as well as greeting cards and other items.) Yes, items bought through the platforms Bookshop.org, Libro.fm or Hummingbird will count, as long as you specify a participating affiliate bookstore when purchasing. Yes, there is a passport involved; you can pick one up at any participating store or print one out at seattlebookstoreday.com. And no, you don’t need to leave your house if you don’t want to; the entire challenge can be done online.

Erin Ball, store manager for Third Place Books in Lake Forest Park and a member of the SIBD steering committee, said that originally the committee considered something simpler — “maybe a coupon, just a blanket discount” — but the stores wanted something closer to what SIBD would be in a normal year. The 10-10-10 Challenge was born from “batting around ideas of how to extend it — to invite people but give them enough time so we weren’t inviting everyone on the same day, but taking into account that some stores are selling online and some customers are shopping online only.”

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Questioned whether bookstores were concerned about crowds, Ball emphasized that bookstores, like all businesses these days, currently have capacity limits; if those are reached, customers will have to wait to be admitted. “I do hope that the 10 days encourages people to spread it out,” she said. “But they do love Bookstore Day!”

It’s been a rough year for the local bookstore business: Stores had to close their doors for several months earlier last spring, relying on online sales (which not every small store was able to offer) for revenue. Many were able to reopen in the late spring and summer, for curbside service and/or limited capacity in-store shopping, but none have been able to resume in-store author events, typically a significant part of a bookstore’s income due to the volume of book copies sold.

And all of them missed out on SIBD last year, which was initially postponed to August and then called off, though a few stores presented very small-scale festivities. It’s a day that’s not only one of the biggest financial days of a bookstore’s year, but also a great marketing opportunity: People seeking to fill out their 21-store passport will visit places they haven’t been to before — and might come back on a less busy day.

Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, estimated that SIBD normally brings one of his stores three to four times the business of a regular Saturday. “It gets people talking and thinking about independent bookstores, it shines a light on the vast array of stores in the Greater Seattle area, and it kind of creates a bit of a level playing field,” he said. “Through the passport system, it allows all the stores to have an equal voice, which we all like.”  

With a hopeful gaze toward 2022 — Ball said she was “cautiously optimistic” that the full Bookstore Challenge might be able to return next year — I’m getting ready to celebrate SIBD in a quiet, contained way this year. And yes, of course I’m going to earn that tote bag, not because I need a tote bag, but because I need those stores to stick around. We’re lucky to live in an area rich with indie bookstores, and to have so many of them still with us feels like a gift. This year, Bookstore Day is Bookstore 10 Days; may they be filled with the joy of books.

Seattle Independent Bookstore Day

April 24-May 3, see seattlebookstoreday.com for more information.