Independent bookstores struggle to find their footing amid a pandemic – Updated

By Lauren Patetta 

Local bookstores have long been integral parts of their neighborhoods. Whether they’ve been around for decades or opened their doors recently, they are important places for cultural discussions and community building. But COVID-19 has presented new and unprecedented challenges for these bookstores, and many have struggled to adapt to the difficulties.  

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 disruptions to the supply chain. On top of that, the inability to allow in-person browsing and host events has completely upended 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.” 

Like many businesses during the pandemic, bookstores like the Strand had to temporarily shut down in March when quarantine took effect. Since then, many have shifted to an entirely online business system, relying solely on web orders to sell books. Events have also been moved online when possible, and stores are only very recently beginning to open up again for in-person browsing. Currently, Odum said the Strand has opened up at 50 percent capacity, and other stores have instituted similar caps on the number of shoppers allowed inside. 

Bradley Graham owns Politics and Prose, one of Washington’s most famous independent bookstores. According to Graham, the store had been doing well before the pandemic: they were operating three locations throughout Washington, had a robust schedule of author events and offered a number of classes and book groups. 

COVID-19 forced the store to find new ways not just to sell books, but also to continue offering the same programs that had been doing so well. Graham 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. Though Politics and Prose is back to making about 80 percent of previous years’ sales (thanks in part to partial the reopening of the physical stores), the first few months of the pandemic still dealt a blow to profits.  

“Because we were depending entirely on web order and phone order sales, we had to switch from being booksellers to essentially book shippers,” Graham said, in regards to those months of quarantine. “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, which wasn’t formerly equipped to handle high volumes of web orders. Other stores had to refocus their entire websites — according to Odum, the Strand had to redesign its 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. Politics and Prose is frequented not just for buying books, but also for its coffee shop (called “The Den”) and its many popular book clubs, which foster community growth. The Strand has been a landmark in New York City since 1927, and attracts a large number of local residents and visitors. As a result, many bookstores like these 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 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,” Graham said. “But people aren’t buying as much as they would actually in-person, and they couldn’t get their books signed.” 

Even with stores operating at a reduced capacity and sales dropping from what they were before COVID-19, there have been some unexpected upsides to the 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. The Washington Post reported data from eMarketer, which found that two-thirds of all online book sales were made through Amazon prior to the pandemic. Now, independent bookstores feel more confident in their ability to push back, thanks to their newly-revamped online ordering services. In August, Powell’s announced its decision to stop selling books on the Amazon Marketplace, a decision that Brodowicz attributed to Powell’s newly-strengthened online presence. 

“We’ve taken kind of a stand against Amazon,” said Brodowicz. “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 brick-and-mortar 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 first few weeks of closure, the amount of online sales ebbed. Powell’s has since opened part of the main store at a reduced capacity, creating another boost in sales. 

According to Odum, strengthening the Strand’s online presence has helped it 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. “They have a whole effort around helping families affected by COVID… so the sense of community (that partnership created) has been great.”

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