Seattle Independent Bookstore Day 2020 came and went on the last Saturday in August — but it wasn’t at all like past years. Postponed from its original April 25 date, the annual celebration of locally owned bookstores had been moved to Aug. 29; back in April, it seemed reasonable to think that the coronavirus pandemic might have calmed down enough to allow the event. But large public gatherings, including long lines of book lovers happily streaming in and out of stores all over town, are still verboten. Bookstore owners and staff, careful not to encourage crowds, contented themselves on Saturday with quiet giveaways and online commemorative T-shirt orders. Just another day, in a very strange year.

“It’s hard to gauge exactly how deep the loss is,” said Chris Jarmick, owner of BookTree in Kirkland. His small store would typically see more than 800 customers on Bookstore Day — and of those, he said, maybe half might buy something. It’s both one of his biggest sales days of the year and, he said, a great marketing opportunity: People come in who might not otherwise have found the store, and come back again on a less-crowded day.

But every day is a less-crowded day now. If you’ve visited your local bookstore lately, you’ve likely seen a few changes. Though most have now reopened for in-person browsing after state requirements forced them to close in the spring, stores are required to set strict limits on how many customers can shop at the same time. (Some, like Queen Anne Book Co., have still not reopened to walk-in traffic, offering only shop-by-appointment.) Elliott Bay Book Co., despite its store’s vast size, allows only 10 walk-in customers at a time; smaller stores will have a smaller number. Most have limited hours, and many are still offering curbside service (order your books over the phone or email; pick them up outside).

And all — in a business with already thin margins — are finding challenges, from the loss of Bookstore Day to the absence of visiting authors, whose events help drive book sales. “It’s had a huge impact on our business,” said Elliott Bay Book Co. manager Tracy Taylor of the latter, noting that online sales do not make up for the loss. “There’s a big difference between (an online event) and people coming to the store, where they might buy the book and they also will shop in the store.”

Fall Arts Guide 2020

Desirae Wilkerson, who co-owns Paper Boat Booksellers in West Seattle with her husband Eric Judy, said that online business has not been a magical savior, though it helps: Currently, she said, their sales are approximately 75% in-store or phone/email orders, 25% online (through the portal bookshop.org). Business has been “a lower volume” lately, though she wonders if that might be a common summer phenomenon: Paper Boat, which officially opened last October, is still in its first year. New to bookselling when it opened, “we probably learned more than we thought we would!” she said, with a laugh.

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One bright spot for booksellers this past summer: a dramatic surge in interest in books on anti-racism topics. This was a blessing not without complications — many titles quickly sold out and were hard to reorder — but it continues to have an effect. Wilkerson said that her customers have been interested in fiction by Black authors, such as Brit Bennett’s “The Vanishing Half” and Kiley Reid’s “Such a Fun Age”; Jarmick said he’s selling plenty of copies of Isabel Wilkerson’s “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents” and Eddie S. Glaude Jr.’s biography of James Baldwin, “Begin Again.” 

But while local stores report a small, steady stream of loyal, mask-wearing customers, the pandemic has clearly affected their bottom lines. Jarmick said that the cost of doing business for him has increased since last spring: While he’s happy to take phone orders from customers who’d rather not enter the store, credit card orders made over the phone incur an extra fee from the card company, cutting into his small profit. He encouraged those who love local bookstores to consider buying gift cards: Think about what you might spend at your local bookstore between now and the end of the year and buy a gift card now for that amount, so the store has that cash flow available.

Taylor concurred that business this year is “vastly different from what we’d like to see, or what we’re used to seeing.” She’s concerned about the upcoming holiday season. “We know that the dollars aren’t going to be out there in people’s pockets, and they’ll be shopping differently,” she said. “We are trying to figure out how to do things a little differently as we go into the holidays. We’re hoping people shop locally and independently. It’s going to be critical.”