Liberty Bay Bookstore in Poulsbo, Washington has been around since 1977, and was a frequent spot for both shopping and author visits for children’s book author Suzanne Selfors. She’d also make regular trips to the store to sign copies of her books that local schools ordered through the shop. “At one point, [Liberty Bay’s previous owner] mentioned to me she was thinking about retiring, and would I consider buying [the business]? I thought about it for a full year before saying ‘yes.’”
Selfors took over on February 1, 2020, just over a month before the COVID-19 lockdown that shut down the state of Washington.
“Things were scary. Customers were scared. My booksellers were scared. So overnight we became an e-commerce site,” Selfors said. “No independent bookstore wants to be in the e-commerce business. It’s impossible to compete with Amazon or Walmart. We can’t offer the reduced prices and … free shipping and make any profit. Impossible. But what else could we do?”
Liberty Bay processed, packaged, and shipped online orders, in addition to offering free doorstep delivery and creating an outdoor contactless pick-up table for locals.
“We worked five times as hard for one-third of the sales. It was exhausting,” Selfors said. “It still is exhausting because it seems we might be heading for a shut-down again.”
Even as lockdowns may shut down stores nationwide once again, shops like Liberty Bay are counting on the holidays to help them survive 2020. “Shopping at one’s local bookstore — or retail stores — over Amazon will help ensure that they’ll be around after Christmas,” said Heidi K. Rojek, co-owner of Sacramento, California’s Capital Books with her husband, Ross. “We believe that many retailers are just hanging on until after the holiday buying season to decide if they’re able to stick it out through COVID or go out of business.”
The Rojeks and their store are one of the pandemic’s rare small-business success stories. When they opened in April 2019, they invested in a robust point-of-service system that had shipping features built in – meaning they were more prepared when customers switched to online purchases — and added curbside pick-up and delivery this year. Ross Rojek estimated that sales were up 70 percent year over year, and they plan to keep curbside pick-up and local delivery post-pandemic.
However, your local bookstore might not be so lucky. The lockdowns initially made people scramble for reading material – especially kids’ books for children who were home from school — and the summer’s demonstrations for racial justice brought increased demand for anti-racist reading material, but even if book sales may have grown in some aspects, small stores have struggled. On October 16, Publishers Weekly reported that bookstore sales in August 2020 were down 30.7 percent year over year, and that June and July registered similar decreases. According to the American Booksellers Association, more than one independent book store has closed each week since the pandemic began.
It’s a scary reality for customers, too, as these smaller book-loving shops offer things big online retailers and big-box stores cannot: book lovers on staff, personal connections with readers, and places to gather and browse for new reads.
“Every day, I am reminded how special an indie bookstore is from buying on Amazon. I see it when Ross talks to a reluctant young reader and asks them to try a specific book series and then they come back in weeks later to ask for the next book,” Heidi Rojek said. “We know our customers’ names and what they like to read. We swap recipes from cookbooks we’ve sold them.”
Those relationships are what is saving some small bookstores.
“My bookstore is still alive because of customer loyalty,” Selfors said. Part of why she bought the business was due to her relationship with its owner, who’d created something special. “Even though the store had been quite successful, I saw ways that I could make it my own, put my own personality into it. And the idea of having a place where I could host my writer friends, have launch events, book groups, writing classes, was intriguing.” Selfors still has hopes for her store to do all of these things if it can survive the pandemic.
Lovers of small shops agree that saving them is essential. For Connie Chang, visiting her parents in San Carlo, California also included a stop at The Reading Bug for her three kids. The store, which primarily caters to kids, is all about the experience. “The staff lovingly curates the books they carry with short recommendation blurbs highlighting their favorites,” Chang said. The store also hosts many special events, including storytimes in a special nook. “They have kid-sized wooden stools carved into flower shapes, colorful murals on the walls, and lots of arches for little heads to duck under,” she said. And, because she wants to return once the pandemic ends, she’ll be buying some holiday gifts there and taking advantage of curbside pick-up.
Customers have also found their way back to their favorite shops in person, as sellers take precautions to make themselves one of the safer outings available. (For example, stores like Liberty Bay and Capital Books both are limiting the number of shoppers in stores at any given time.) Sandhya Nakani, founder of Literary Safari, is one such parent. When her daughter turned 11 this summer, the pair made a birthday outing to Books of Wonder, a famous children’s-only book store with a location on the Upper West Side, near Nakani’s office. Her daughter, who loves the Harry Potter series and books from Rick Riordan, got new recommendations from the staff. “[On past visits], the staff had been so great in helping her discover new authors and books … . It was like meeting book doctors or psychics,” Nakani said. “You tell them a bit about what you like to read and they whip out all these new options for you, and give you mini book talks on each one!”
If you’ve ever had a similar experience and visited a store whose atmosphere and expertise you value, the best thing you can do is shop there this winter.
“If we only spend our money at big box stores, we will only have big box stores. That possible landscape really depresses me,” Selfors said. “If you want to live in a world curated by algorithms, then by all means, keep pressing ‘buy’ on your Amazon account. But if you want to live in a world where you can walk through a cute downtown, and step into a bookstore where the sellers are human beings who have actually read the books and where you can have a lovely conversation and discover something that’s written by a local author, or in a genre you wouldn’t normally read, then you must support indies. Support them now. For we are losing them at an alarming rate.”
What you can do on Small Business Saturday, Giving Tuesday, and beyond to support bookstores and delight book lovers:
- Shop Early: If you haven’t already, go online or plan a safe visit to your local store. Shipping books might take longer than usual and will definitely take longer than from a large retailer, but please be patient.
- Buy Gift Cards: If you can’t make it to these stores, or – because in some cases – shipping times are taking a while – buy gifts cards to your favorite indie stores. Visit indiebound.org, too to locate the nearest small shop near you, or near someone you love.
- Shop at Bookshop.org: The site helps small bookstores two ways. You can look up your local seller on a map and make sure the profits from your order goes to them, or you can shop as you would on a larger e-commerce site and Bookshop will divide 10 percent of its profits to give to small sellers.
- Buy Store Merchandise: Many stores sell more than books. Buy store t-shirts and mugs to support your favorite seller.
- Donate to Library Drives: Libraries receive government funding, but that money only goes so far. This Giving Tuesday, consider making a donation or joining your library’s Friends organization, which often help purchase new materials and resources.
- Donate to Organizations: In a year where kids are learning at home, some kids have lost access to school and classroom libraries. Non-profits like First Book give books to low-income kids.