Independent bookstores struggle to find their footing amidst a pandemic

By Lauren Patetta 

Quarantine may have given people a chance to catch up on their reading, but that doesn’t mean it has been easy on independent booksellers. Bookstores, especially local ones, have not escaped the blows COVID-19 has dealt to local businesses.

In April, the National Federation of Independent Businesses found that 92 percent of small businesses were being negatively affected by the pandemic, with 80 percent reporting drops in sales and nearly one-third dealing with upsets to the supply chain. On top of that, the suspension of foot traffic and the inability to host events have completely disrupted how bookstores operate. 

“It has been a shock to the system in every sense of the word,” James Odum, communications director at Strand Book Store in New York City, said in an interview. “Retail is really at the heart and soul of what we do, so we’ve really had to pivot to focus on digital and social.” 

Bradley Graham owns Politics and Prose, one of Washington’s most famous independent bookstores. He said in an interview that when the pandemic hit, book sales dropped to as low as 20 to 30 percent of what they were the previous year. It has forced the store to find new ways to not just sell books, but also to host events and classes, two things the store offered frequently. 

“Because we were depending entirely on web order and phone order sales, we had to switch from becoming booksellers to essentially book shippers,” Graham said. “And our stores operated more like warehouses than display spaces.” 

In order to handle the shift to online ordering, Graham said the store needed to perform all-new training for the staff and find ways to improve their ordering system. Other stores had to refocus their entire websites — according to Odum, the Strand had to redesign its entire website to focus on promoting book sales. 

The allure of local bookstores derives strongly from their individuality and the sense of unity they bring to a community. As a result, many have become tourist attractions, which has made it hard for them to keep operating during the pandemic. 

Emily Brodowicz is the marketing coordinator at Powell’s City of Books in Portland, Oregon, one of the largest independent bookstores in the world. She said that Powell’s reputation made it a popular tourist destination, but without much tourism over the summer, sales fell dramatically, and the store had to lay off many employees. 

“We were mostly a brick and mortar company with a bit of online,” Brodowicz said in an interview. “And while the increase in online orders has been amazing, it’s not quite the same thing.”

Events have also been a touchstone of independent bookstores. Politics and Prose, the Strand and Powell’s all had robust event programs before the pandemic, with authors coming in for presentations, panels and signings multiple days a week. Though each store has managed to move most of the events online, it’s not always the same.  

“The [virtual] events were drawing larger audiences on average… but people aren’t buying as much as they would actually in-person, and they couldn’t get their books signed,” Graham said. 

But all hope isn’t lost for independent bookstores, and many have found some advantages to the current situation. 

 “The forcing of bookstores to think more strategically about e-commerce and social media and also virtual events has… certainly been beneficial to our overall business,” Odum said. 

Other stores have found ways to fight back against Amazon and its bookselling supremacy during quarantine. Prior to the pandemic, two-thirds of all online book sales were made through Amazon, according to the Washington Post. Now, independent bookstores feel more confident in their ability to push back, thanks to their newly-revamped online ordering services. 

“We’ve taken kind of a stand against Amazon,” said Brodowicz. In August, Powell’s announced its decision to stop selling books on the Amazon Marketplace, a decision that Brodowicz attributed to Powell’s strengthened e-commerce platform. “We actually just put up a billboard across the street from the store that says ‘Amazon’s going to be fine, folks. Shop independent.’”

Other stores have also had success in the fight against Amazon thanks to the recent launch of Bookshop.org, a website that allows customers to buy books online from their local bookstores, as long as they have a partnership with Bookshop. This has allowed even small stores to profit from online ordering, and given customers a way to support independent booksellers without leaving the house. 

“The idea for Bookshop was really to provide two things: to draw customers who might otherwise have gone to Amazon to different sites whose sales would benefit independent bookstores, and… to provide a relatively easy way for stores that didn’t yet have their own websites to open a page on Bookshop,” Graham said. Politics and Prose does not have a page on Bookshop, given its online ordering was robust enough before its launch, but Graham said he supports Bookshop’s efforts nonetheless. 

Of course, an outpouring of support from loyal customers has also helped local bookstores survive. Brodowicz noted that right after Powell’s closed its stores, customers flooded the online shop with orders. 

“It was amazing. The entire warehouse was just full of carts of orders, because people wanted to keep us in business,” she said, though she acknowledged that after the initial weeks of closure, the amount of online sales ebbed. 

Not only are customers trying to support local stores, but those stores are trying to give back to the community as well. Moving online has also helped forge new connections and improve community outreach. Odum said that the Strand partnered with the Robin Hood Foundation, a New York-based organization dedicated to fighting poverty in the city, to assist the neighborhood. 

“We have a line of branded face masks, so we donate $1 each face mask to Robin Hood’s COVID-19 Relief Fund,” Odum said. “The sense of community has been great.”

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