We will lose a lot in these next months. We’ve already lost too much. One thing we don’t need to lose is our independent bookstores.
You have watched all the episodes of Norsemen. I’ve watched them twice.
Now we need books.
For so many, the ease and speed of Amazon has been a comfort in these anxious days. But in a strange twist of fate, because Amazon has become purveyor of every necessity from bandaids to baby wipes, books are now a lower priority.
Those who order physical books through Amazon have been told the wait could be six weeks.
If there were ever a time to take a few extra moments to order through your local bookstore, it’s now. Admittedly, all retail is and will be under unimaginable strain in the coming months, but bookstores are one category where, with owner ingenuity and community spirit, survival might be possible.
The novelist Ann Patchett, who owns Parnassus Books in Nashville, invented a workaround to keep her customers in books and her workers safe. “For a while, we took the credit card information over the phone and then tossed the bag of books into the back window of the customer’s car,” she says. She discontinued the practice a few days ago, but they’re still shipping books from the store — albeit with skeletal staff. “It all depends on shipping,” she says. “If shipping holds on, we hold on.”
When Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan, first had to close their store to the public, their customers roared back with 800 orders in one week. (The store usually gets five or ten in that period.) They were ecstatic and began fulfillment, but days later, Michigan issued a stay-at-home order, which sent the store’s staff home. Now Literati’s owners, Hilary and Mike Gustafson, are sending out merchandise from their living room. Not easy when they have a two-year-old and a newborn who arrived in February.
“I’m scrambling,” said Elaine Petrocelli, owner of Book Passage, an iconic bookstore with two locations in the Bay Area. Because her stores rely on income from a dizzying schedule of events and classes — about a thousand a year — she has little revenue coming in, and significant rent and payroll costs.
“Audiobooks are a godsend right now,” Petrocelli says. “That’s immediate cash for us.” That’s if customers buy them through Libro.fm, a portal that’s currently giving 100 percent of every purchase to the bookstore of your choice. Book Passage, and most stores, can also ship physical books to you direct through their distributors. (Literati is doing this, too.) Margins are slim this way, but it’s still faster than Amazon.
For those who can afford it, gift cards are far and away the easiest way to help. If you normally buy ten books a year, prepaying for them now gives your local bookstore cash now. That $200, multiplied by a hundred customers, might mean the difference between that store still existing after the apocalypse, or becoming a vape shop or Jamba Juice.
Much depends on landlords. Many landlords are giving no concessions or flexibility to their retail tenants, even during the worst health crisis since 1918. “At this point, we haven’t secured any kind of deferral or abatement of rent,” Mike Gustafson says. “We expect we’ll be fully liable for our rent term, even if the world is burning.”
Meanwhile, there has been little clarity from Washington about what relief small businesses — which employ 59 million Americans — can expect from their government.
“Unless something changes,” Gustafson says, “meaning, unless the government provides substantial small business interruption grants or loans with forgiveness depending on employee retention, at some point, we’ll have to lay off some employees. We haven’t yet. Will we be back open in four weeks? Twelve weeks? In 2020? We are doing everything possible to keep as many staff as we can.”
For those bookstore employees laid off or furloughed, there is the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which provides grants to cover rent and food and healthcare. Otherwise, citizens should do what we’ve always done when our government dithers, falls short and ultimately, inevitably, favors the largest corporations over neighborhood businesses. We must step in and save what we love.
“If we built this bookstore once,” Gustafson says, “we can build it again. The amount of online support and orders indicates that perhaps books and bookstores actually are a necessity, even if they are not on the typical hierarchy of survival needs. I’m already feeling foolish for what I’m about to say here, but it’s like that Jeff Goldblum quote in Jurassic Park, ‘Life finds a way.’ Books, and bookstores, will find a way.”