ATG Original: Pandemics and Bookstores: A Crisis that Can be Met

by | May 14, 2020 | 0 comments

by Nancy K. Herther (writer, consultant and Sociology/Anthropology Librarian, University of Minnesota Libraries)

Just a year ago, the American Booksellers Association convened its 2019 Annual Membership Meeting noting that “The indie channel remains ‘vibrant and healthy.’ Ninety-nine new independent bookstore members opened for business in 2018 across 37 states and the District of Columbia, a 32 percent increase over 2017. Further, a  number of member stores opened new branches and 28 established member stores were purchased by new owners.”  That translated to sales growing at 7.5% over the past five years. 

WHAT A DIFFERENCE A YEAR MAKES

On a lonely day last January, before COVID-19 spread to Europe, at the Petersfield Bookshop in Petersfield, England,  the sales clerk tweeted it was like “tumbleweed….Not a single book sold today…£0.00…” However, this tweet was passed along and eventually came to author Neil Gaiman, who passed the tweet on to his 2.7 million twitter followers. And the rest, as they say, is history. 

Readers and book lovers from around the world checked the store’s inventory on AbeBooks and put in orders. Calling this “the Gaiman bump,” the one-hundred year old bookshop’s manager is now planning for expansion rather than demise. Gaiman is a well-known supporter of libraries, authors and bookstores. He followed up a few weeks later by tweeting to his followers: “Support your local bookshop!”

The COVID-19 pandemic is causing the entire retail sector to reel from the impact of closed shops and few customers. “The only thing certain right now is uncertainty, and if you happen to run an independent bookstore, that rings perhaps even more true,” notes a recent article in Entertainment Weekly. “With less time for socializing and cultural events outside the home, it should be a great time for books….But that doesn’t necessarily translate to being a great time for bookstores who are closing their doors and being asked to re-think their business in fundamental ways.” 

“Nationwide, many shops have closed as a result of shelter-in-place orders or an abundance of caution,” the article continues. “Even if stores are still open, they’re faced with cancellations from publishers and authors. Normally a home for book clubs, author signings, and book tours, now they must face business without mass gatherings or author travel. Many have been forced to cancel annual festivals that account for large percentages of their yearly income.”

Over 35 indies across North America and Western Europe were contacted for this article. Booksellers who responded reported sales figures uniformly very weak, at best.  Many have closed and hope for a quick resolution to the crisis. Almost all of the indies contacted that are still open are using web or phone-based orders, using drive-by pick-up or postal delivery services. All had hoped for a quick solution to the crisis and began reducing their hours or operating on an appointment-only basis. Some reported their delivery is done by scheduling an appointment and knocking at the door or a few reported delivering to local customers by car/bike/motorcycle. 

INDIE BOOKSTORES LOOK FOR HELP

“As for those customers with more spending power,” The Verge reported in March, “…are turning to their digital newsletters and social media more than ever. Book clubs are moving online to Facebook, Zoom, and YouTube. Authors are using booksellers’ Instagram pages to do live talks promoting their new releases. Part of this is arising from a need to maintain the communal spirit of bookstores, but also a desire to help support authors who might also be struggling with the cancelation of book tours and the loss of valuable face-to-face time with readers.”

Most bookstores operate on thin profits, but now many are in danger of closing.  Some have turned to GoFundMe and other donation sites to stay afloat.  And today there are hundreds of bookstores that have sought funding solicitations on GoFundMe. Bonfire is a site that allows nonprofits to sell t-shirts for their cause and Richmond Virginia’s independent bookstores are just one group selling tees that proclaim “Stay Home, Read Books, Stay Alive,” with all profits helping sustain local indies. 

Fundly is another option, with charges of a 4.9% platform fee and a credit card processing fee of 2.9% + $0.30. Bookselling Without Borders, a project of American Booksellers Association is on Fundly seeking financial support to bring readers “the world through books by providing booksellers with fellowships to international book fairs & bookstore residencies. Be a part of our growing literary community.” 

Crowdfunder takes a different approach by using its network of over 15,000 angel investors “that will be at your disposal when you start a campaign” for funding at a fee that starts at $399 a month. Presented as portfolios of companies, details reflect more of a prospectus than other sites.  One, the Monkey Bread Cafe and Bookstore, is presented with details on the potential market, location and profits. As the prospective owner notes, her dream has “been a long time coming. My goal is to provide organic baked goods and cafe items from locally sourced vendors. As well as provide really great coffee. I have searched for the perfect space to open my first location and Homestead, Florida is primed and ready for what I have to offer.” Indiegogo is another key website for bookstores seeking support to keep going today.  Over 60 bookstore-related projects are listed;  however, few received much funding.

Another grass-roots effort has arisen that might be another route for indies. Aakanksha Gaur, and her ShelfJoy Instagram community is sharing photos of independent bookstores and now has her following helping crowdsource a spreadsheet listing stores and ways to support each of them. The spreadsheet turned into a simple app called Save Your Bookstore and is worth a good look.

Recently Publishers Weekly reported that many of the GoFundMe clients have yet to receive the donations pledged on the website. “A number of the stores that were among the first to launch successful campaigns in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic are complaining that, to date, GoFundMe has not released the funds promised them.”

IS AMAZON THE ANSWER

Amazon announced on March 16th that they would need to be prioritizing “the most in-demand essential items in its warehouses, as the e-commerce giant struggles to keep up with customer demand In mid-March,” and that includes  prioritizing household staples, medical supplies, and other high-demand products coming into our fulfillment centers so that we can more quickly receive, restock and deliver these products to customers.” However, if you have a known item, this is a potential option. AbeBooks is a key alternative as well as so many other aggregators. Readers can help keep the indie momentum going by purchasing books directly from stores. To track down your local bookstores, head to IndieBound’s Bookstore Finder or Book Store Link.

In a Slate article in late March, Bryce Covert wrote that “until this month, independent bookstores were experiencing something of a cultural, if not necessarily financial, renaissance. Where they’ve persevered, they are often beloved community institutions, not just selling goods, but bringing people together around events and serving as a central gathering place. They can also be ad hoc sanctuaries in times of difficulty.”  Covert quotes Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in D.C., who notes that “historically, we’re the ones who’ve served as havens of comfort, reassurance, and information to many people in need during a crisis. We feel a closure to the public particularly acutely given that we’ve always prided ourselves on being there for communities in need during past crises.”  

Librarians, writers, publishers and readers all have much to lose if we see the passing of even a few of these wonderful institutions that are such a key partner. Their commitment, intelligence, knowledge, energy and love of the written word is too important to lose at such a critical time today.  Check out your local bookstores by phone or website and see if you can’t still order something online or for pickup.  If you aren’t sure what some of the bookstores are in your area, you can use Bookstore Link or IndieBound’s Indie Bookstore Finder to local one.

“Civilization was built through books and the telling of stories,” Petersfield Bookshop co-owner John Westwood explained to the Washington Post.  He encouraged us all to “please, go and find your local indie bookshops, new and secondhand, and buy real books from them. If you don’t they will just close and disappear, You won’t even notice to start with and then you will. And it will be too late.”

With the COVID-19 shut-downs, we can all use a good read.  In his book On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Stephen King noted that “books are a uniquely portable magic.” Given the shut-downs and stay-at-home orders across the globe, who couldn’t use a good book right now? The future of our bookselling chain may just be at stake.


Nancy K. Herther is a regular contributor to the ATG website and can be reached at  herther@umn.edu.

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