Are Bookstores an Essential Business?

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Photo by Tuur Tisseghem on Pexels.com

The coronavirus has changed the landscape of bookselling. At a time when indie bookstores have been growing in popularity and Barnes & Noble is trying to reinvent itself, bookselling is suddenly in a precarious position. In my state, as many others, we have “stay-at-home” mandates in place that also only allow essential businesses and services to remain open. Grocery and hardware stores, gas stations, repair shops, as well as critical medical facilities, utilities, first responders, and repair services like plumbers continue to work, but must practice infection control and social distancing measures.

From what I can tell, all our bookstores are closed. Some tried to arrange curbside pick up services, but most, other than Barnes and Noble for online orders, have eliminated this. As with other businesses, it has led to the layoff of bookstore personnel, and if this goes very long, could sink many operations.

In some places, bookstores are raising the question of whether they might be considered an essential business. For some bibliophiles, this is a no-brainer. Of course, they would say! Sure, there are some of us who are well prepared to wait this out with high TBR piles and books squirreled away in every room of the house. We may need toilet paper, but not books, and in a pinch…

But seriously, an extended stay at home poses the challenge of how we spend the time. Many have observed the precedent of Boccaccio’s Decameron, in which a group of friends (who can afford it) flee to the country and tell each other stories. I suppose with online tools, we might pass the time similarly. But for many who aren’t into endless video, books may be a critical essential for filling at least some of those hours. With libraries also closed, some readers may run out of books.

From a public health point of view, and in the eyes of many who don’t have the luxury of buying books in any season, this may be the frivolous complaint of the elite, or even a dangerous practice if it results in additional spread of infection. Justifying bookstores would probably support the argument that a variety of other businesses might be justified in staying open.

So, while I don’t think it is essential to keep bookstores open, I think it is essential to keep them alive. They serve as an important “third place” in normal times, they play a critical role in helping authors get the word out about their books, they offer whole families the chance to have books of their own, from children to young adults to moms and dads to grandparents. They are an important lifeline for our publishing industry. And there is a serendipity of browsing the shelves that online shopping can never duplicate. So, what can be done? Here are a few ideas:

  • Many stores still allow you to do phone and/or online orders. Some are waiving shipping. It might be easier to order them online (although Amazon has had to limit its book business for more “essentials”). Figure out the bookstore you love and buy from them. Yet also realize, for many stores, this alone will not be enough.
  • Buy audiobooks from them as well through Libro.Fm. If they are a partner, they can get a cut. At indiebound.org you can find similar options for buying e-books. One caveat is that these won’t work on your Kindle.
  • You can also buy gift cards from the store to use yourself or give away. This gives the store an immediate cash infusion and you a nice gift for friends (and hopefully, new customers for the store).
  • Some stores have turned to online funding tools like GoFundMe to raise needed funds to stay alive. Literati Bookstore, in Ann Arbor, a store which has received national recognition, is faced with the challenge of having enough funds to re-open. They set a goal of raising $100,000 through a GoFundMe campaign, and exceeded it in two days time. Do you love your bookstore? You might consider doing this, or even organizing a campaign for them.

In the U.S., it appears many of us will be receiving checks from Uncle Sam. Some who are unemployed desperately need these funds. But for some of us, this is a bonus. As you think of how you use this, if you are a bibliophile, you might think of how you might help your favorite bookseller. There are a number of critical needs of course, including many who were on the edge even before all this. There are other businesses we want to see survive as well. But as readers, we are the people who care for and know the value of bookstores better than any. This is the time to act, as we are able, on what we know.