Bookstores across the country, like so many small businesses, are struggling to survive amid calls for social distancing and shelter-in-place ordinances. Some shops are turning to crowdfunding to stay alive, while others are embracing online sales--in some cases, for the first time. Even giants like New York's Strand Book Store and Powell's City of Books in Portland, Oregon, had to lay off their staffs. (Powell's was able to hire back some, in response to the groundswell of online orders.)
The challenge comes as many bookstores have redefined themselves in the past decade as community spaces--as a way to offer something Amazon can't. As recently as last year, people celebrated the renewed success of independent booksellers, buoyed by a 6.9 percent increase in hardcover book sales and in-person events that attracted crowds of buyers. In 2018, bookstore sales hit $10.28 billion, a 1.7 percent increase for an industry many had written off in the age of digital downloads.
Pegasus Books, which has anchored the San Francisco's East Bay's book community for over 50 years, closed all three of its locations in Berkeley and Oakland on March 16. Owner Amy Thomas furloughed her team of 35 employees, with pay, through March 27th. She has been checking in with individual employees on a regular basis, doing "financial triage to make sure nobody goes under," she says.
As for financial triage for her shops, Thomas says she's lucky to own one of her buildings and have good relationships with the landlords of her others. "They're in it too," she says. She paid her rent for the days in March she remained open and will pay them some portion of what she makes with online sales during her closure, however long that takes. "There's something weird about this--weird in a good way, you know? Nobody has to be explained to."
With stuck-at-home readers limited to accessing libraries digitally or ordering books from Amazon, which temporarily suspended book sales to prioritize shipping more essential items, online sales (formerly a very small part of Pegasus's business) are helping. "We're pivoting, but what we do as bookstores, with events and readings... [Running] another kind of bookstore to keep everybody going for a while is fine, but long term, we need to be back in the store," says Thomas.
With so many decades of experience in an already challenging business, Thomas has some advice for small-business owners. "What's really been important to me is to build good relationships with the people you might sometimes be in conflict with: your vendors and your landlords," she says. "If you just build super-honest, transparent relationships with everybody from the get-go, and say, 'This is who I am, this is what I can do,' and if there's a month that you can't pay for all of it, or [payment] has to be slow, tell them. If there's a problem, call them, reach out."