It Looks Like a Hard Winter for Bookstores

It was global news in the book world. The owner of the venerable Strand Bookstore in New York City recently made an emergency plea for the store. Revenue was down 70 percent. Since then, nearly 25,000 orders flooded in approaching $200,000 in sales, crashing the website (although that is only $8 an order if correct).

If my friends at Bob on Books on Facebook are any indication, there is trouble ahead if the pandemic continues. Bottom line: out of 133 comments on a recent question about this, only 5 people indicated they were comfortable going to bookstores on a regular basis (usually where masking was strictly enforced). One person who worked in a bookstore reported a steep drop in customers, but those who came in bought more and puzzles and games were especially popular.

Some are doing curbside pickups. But this takes away the browsing experience and those serendipitous discoveries that you can only make when browsing. We made two trips to our local Half Price Books about six weeks ago, sold a lot of books and bought some. Then infection rates in Ohio nearly tripled. Hanging out waiting for books to be priced somehow doesn’t seem as safe.

A lot of people are obtaining their books through libraries, either by reserving books or downloading digital books. I wouldn’t be surprised if e-book sales have surged because many are buying books online this way. Or they are ordering from online sellers, mainly Amazon or Thriftbooks for used, or a handful of other online sellers. A very small number ordered from local bookstores or online services connected to local stores like bookshop.org.

Then there are the people who came prepared for the pandemic. They have TBR piles that will see them through a year or more of not bookbuying. If this group of booklovers is at all representative of the book buying public, then bookstores are in trouble.

I fear it will only get worse as the rates of infection rise in the U.S. It appears to me that many of us have imposed our own lockdowns–we don’t need a government to do it for us. We really would love to spend time browsing our favorite stores, if they are open. But we really don’t want to update our wills for a bookstore hop. Many indie stores are smaller, cozy affairs. In ordinary times that is inviting. Now it feels kind of dangerous.

It is nothing short of miraculous if your favorite bookseller is not hurting or in danger of going out of business. Like the Strand, Shakespeare and Co. in Paris, facing new lockdowns and an 80% drop in sales has put out a similar plea for online orders. The big, famous stores can do this. Your local indie may not have the same media clout. But their situation is the same or worse, if news stories and personal accounts are any indication.

If you are able, now is a good time to plan your winter reading, stock up on the new releases and old standbys that you have wanted to read. It’s not too early to shop for books to send to friends for Christmas. Maybe you can set up a virtual book club for the winter months with some friends and all order your books from the same store. The point? Amazon is fine and will be around when this is all over. But what about your beloved store?

Maybe one of the best ways to get your mind off your own survival over the next months is to think about how you can help your favorite store survive. Maybe you can talk them up as the place where you get the books you love. Post about them on your social media (as I do about my favorite store on this blog). Or give a gift card or certificate to friends for Christmas, providing the store an immediate cash infusion. You might also give the store some new customers. You might even send the store owner a holiday card with a little something extra stashed inside.

The day will come when we can resume all the normal things we did before the pandemic. When the day comes when we feel safe visiting our favorite stores again (and I know we define “safe” differently), will their doors be open or will we encounter an “out of business” sign or an empty storefront? It’s up to us.

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