Saturday, April 25, 2020

To Survive, Independent Bookstores Get Creative

I'm actually enjoying working from home. I needed a break anyway. I was having anxiety attacks at the beginning of the semester, unrelated to corona, and my teaching was suffering from the decline of my health --- a first in my career.

And while there's no replacement for the dynamic interaction of the classroom setting, I've adapted pretty well to teaching online. Things have been going surprisingly well with my teaching, considering I've never done remote instruction before. I'm kind of proud of my progress. Frankly, it's been mostly self-learning. The training for distance education on my campus was extremely limited --- literally two hours of training on Canvas and faculty members were sent out on their own, the very week of the campus lockdown, to sink or swim.

In any case, amid all the lockdowns and social distancing, I miss going to bookstores perhaps the most. That, and stopping off at the sports bar in the afternoon to quaff an IPA and read a novel before heading home.

The bars will open back up, especially those that offer curbside pickup for food and alcohol orders (like B.J.'s Pizza in Irvine).

I'm not so sure about bookstores, though. In addition to Amazon, I've been buying books at my local favorite, the Bookman in Orange.

In any case, at Business Week, "Independent Bookstores Get Creative to Survive the Long Lockdown":

After several days of hunkering down at home in late March, this reporter decided it was time to seek out a few literary diversions to keep the coronavirus blues at bay—some novels for myself, mysteries for my 13-year-old, a nonfiction thriller for a friend’s birthday. Learning that Walden Pond Books, my favorite independent bookstore in Oakland, Calif., was closed but still taking orders for pickup, I phoned in my list and rode my bike to the normally laid-back shop. On the door was a very unmellow admonition: a cardboard sign blaring “DO NOT TOUCH DOOR HANDLE!!”

After putting on yellow rubber kitchen gloves, I knocked on the window, then stood several feet back. Soon a lone employee wearing a mask cracked open the door and asked for my name. I whispered it. A few minutes later, he reappeared carrying a brown paper bag and handed over the sanitized goods. Before taking it, I looked furtively around, half expecting to see cops.

“Two-thirds of my staff is laid off right now,” says Paul Curatolo, Walden Pond’s co-owner and manager, explaining the reason behind the shop’s speakeasy-like pickup strategy. “I can’t pay them for work I don’t have. But for every day that we’re closed, we are getting more phone calls.”

With much of the nation under strict stay-at-home orders, independent bookstores—which rely largely on foot traffic, browsing, and impulse buying—are struggling like never before. Amazon .com Inc. has long dominated book sales, and many independent shops are Luddite operations that lack robust websites, much less e-commerce operations.

To survive, they’ve had to get inventive in a hurry. Like Walden Pond, many are taking orders over the phone, then providing curbside pickup similar to the virus-impacted restaurants operating carryout only. Wheatberry Books in Chillicothe, Ohio, has launched a virtual storytime for children. Magic City Books in Tulsa is shipping curated “literary care packages” and announced a series of virtual author events. And scores of others, including Taylor Books in Charleston, W.Va., are turning to fundraisers via GoFundMe to stay afloat.

While the number of independent shops in the U.S. belonging to the American Booksellers Association is now more than 1,800, up from about 1,400 in 2009, the business is often fragile even in the best of times. Now the trade group warns that the Covid-19 crisis has put some of its members in grave danger, and many have embraced e-commerce in a bid to weather the long shutdowns.

“There’s been a drop in overall book sales as most bookstores are closed to the public right now, except for deliveries and curbside pickup, but a significant increase in online sales,” says Allison K Hill, chief executive officer of the booksellers’ association. “The online sales aren’t very profitable, though, as the cost to manage them is high and the margin is thin. Many independent bookstores will be dependent on government relief, fundraising, and support from their communities to survive.”

Many independent shops don’t have the staff, or the bandwidth, to constantly update websites, much less manage the inventory, shipping, and customer-service challenges that an e-commerce expansion brings...
Keep reading.

When the Bookman lost its lease at its Tustin Avenue location sometime back, the owners opened up a GoFundMe page to help finance the move to a new location. It took a while, but the store did reopen about a year ago at its current location on West Katella Avenue.

I picked up a book the other day. The store offers curbside pickup. You order by phone or online, and then phone ahead when you're ready to pick up. I got over there to pick up and the guy comes out with a mask on to hand me my book. It was unwrapped. I kicked in a large tip on top of the price, and sometime in the next few days I'm going to make a huge donation of books I'm currently cleaning out of my library.

That's the best I can do right now, other than to make more cash donations. Bookman's not opening up a GoFundMe page this time around, or if so I haven't heard about it. I don't know if a second time around would save the business.

So, support your local bookstores folks. Who knows how long the big corporate chains will last? Barnes and Noble might be going the way of Borders before you know it.