Three indie bookstores in different states shared how they’re keeping sales up and connecting with their communities during COVID-19.
They say necessity is the mother of invention, and many small businesses are finding creative ways to connect with customers and stay afloat amidst the uncertainty of the coronavirus. The pandemic has been an especially mixed bag for independent bookstores, as they try to keep their communities entertained and fill the void left by library closings and Amazon prioritizing other essential items. On the other hand, the cancellation of author visits and other in-person events have taken a bit out of many bookstore budgets.
Since conditions vary from city to city and store to store, we caught up with indie bookstores in 3 different states to see how they’re doing.
BookPeople in Austin, Texas
Gov. Abbott of Texas is allowing businesses to reopen at reduced capacity, and some Texas bookstores are already doing so. But Charley Rejsek, general manager at BookPeople, says they’re not ready yet, because they’re still ordering plastic partitions and figuring out how to operate safely for employees and the community. “No one has asked us if we’re opening or when we’re opening,” she says.
When Austin first went under a shelter-in-place order in mid-March, BookPeople shifted its online orders to Bookshop.org, an online retailer that ships direct to consumers and supports the indie bookstore of the consumer’s choice. The margins on Bookshop orders are lower than what BookPeople could get using its own website, but Rejsek says it was a good stopgap as they worked out a system for fulfilling website orders. “We built a business model we’re currently on which is having individual teams in the store that do not overlap,” she says. That way, BookPeople can ship signed books from the store and enjoy higher profit margins.
Book reader boxes, Zoom events
“We’re trying to replicate what it looks like to go into our store and put it online.”Part of the BookPeople experience is browsing funky gifts like greeting cards, socks, and tchotchkes, so those sales have disappeared. “We’re trying to replicate what it looks like to go into our store and put it online,” Rejsek says. “I have my gift buyer putting together a book reader box.”
They are also working to replace revenue from in-store events by moving author events online. “When we were in the store, we had a marketing team who booked the events and had an events team who produced the events,” Rejsek says. “To produce an entire event through Zoom is very different.” But now, 2 months after closing to the public, they’re announcing new events almost daily. The booksellers also host a happy hour every Friday so they can engage with the community on Twitter.
“We look forward to the day that we can open our doors and browse all the books but for now we’re just trying to engage our community of books through our online events,” Rejsek says.
The Village Bookstore in Pleasantville, New York
After buying the Village Bookstore from its previous owners in December 2018, new owner Jennifer Kohn launched the bookstore’s website in December 2019. Now with the store closed to the public since mid-March, she estimates that online orders account for about 40% of sales. Customers can also place orders via phone call or email for curbside pickup or free delivery within 10 miles of the store with a minimum $25 order. They started offering delivery before the pandemic, but the option really took off after the store closed to the public.
Libro.FM, event partnerships
Promotions for supporting local businesses through gift card purchases and revenue from Libro.FM (an audiobook service similar to Audible that supports indie bookstores) have helped, as have local book clubs now meeting online. But Kohn says sales are still down, and she’s had to furlough several employees. Normally, their headcount is 7 people, but they’re currently down to 3.
Promotions for supporting local businesses through gift card purchases and revenue from Libro.FM (an audiobook service similar to Audible that supports indie bookstores) have helped.
As a small store, The Village Bookstore doesn’t host a lot of author events in store, but they do partner with other venues to host events. For instance, they hosted a Facebook Live with Columbia University’s School of Journalism to discuss nonfiction. They’re also partnering with a local library to host an event for teens to celebrate the release of the prequel in the Hunger Games series. “We’re focused on continuing providing the services that are helping people get books into their hands,” Kohn says.
Old Town Books in Alexandria, Virginia
After a busy weekend in mid-March, Old Town Books closed to the public and shifted to curbside pickup or shipping. “Our store is relatively small,” says bookseller Angie Sanchez. “We just did not see this being feasible for us to be social distancing.”
While sales have remained strong, Sanchez says fulfilling online orders is more labor-intensive than ringing up customers who’ve picked out their own books. “We’ve been trying to work as efficiently as possible,” she adds.
Even as Virginia prepares to reopen businesses at reduced capacity, Sanchez says her store is sticking with curbside pickup for now. In the future, they may open the bookstore to 1 or 2 people at a time by appointment. The customer would pay a small fee to book an appointment, and they’d receive that amount in credit for shopping.
Literary fiction subscriptions, online writing classes
“One positive thing that’s come out of this is, I think people have started to find more comfort in reading.”In the meantime, Old Town Books has a literary fiction subscription service called With Love, From Old Town that focuses on debut authors. “People have been really receptive towards it,” Sanchez says. “They get a newsletter with each package telling them about the book and why we picked it.” Subscribers also get access to a monthly book club to discuss the book online.
Prior to the pandemic, Old Town Books hosted sporadic writing classes. Now, without geographic limitations, they’ve had huge interest in online writing classes with authors like Sarah Gailey, Alexander Chee, and Sarah MacLean. The authors donate their time to teach the class, and donations from participants support the store. “
For some well-known authors who would typically go to a larger indie bookstore, it was really cool to see them help us in a virtual space,” Sanchez says.
This summer, they are also moving their Emerging Writers Festival online.
Thanks to these efforts, Old Town Books has seen higher sales compared to this time last year and hasn’t furloughed or laid off staff.
“One positive thing that’s come out of this is, I think people have started to find more comfort in reading,” Sanchez says.