Like many a bibliophile, I’ve spent self-isolation dreaming of the day that I can wander the aisles of my favorite bookstores again. After beelining toward Home Before Dark, I’d spend a lazy afternoon perusing new releases and flipping through the books on display. My state is in phase two of reopening, so technically I could go browse. My visit just wouldn’t be quite the same as the frolic through the shelves I’ve imagined, and for good reason. As bookstores reopen, owners are prioritizing safety for employees and customers above all else.
New Safety Policies and Procedures as Bookstores Reopen
At Quail Ridge Books in Raleigh, things look a bit different than they did prior to the novel coronavirus. Management only allows eight guests to be in the store at a time to ensure plenty of space for social distancing. When a customer walks in, their first stop is a required trip to the bathroom for a thorough hand washing before they’re allowed to browse. Hand sanitizer and masks are both readily available. My favorite addition is the boxes located throughout the store for customers to place books that they’ve touched but decided not to purchase. Those books are quarantined and sanitized before being returned to the shelves.
I was curious about how safety might play out in a massive store like The Strand in New York City. While they’re allowed 50% capacity—which would be about 150 people—they decided that having a maximum of 80 people in the store felt better for social distancing. Throughout their building, you’ll find decals that provide guidance on where to stand in order to stay six feet away from other shoppers. They’ve also thought about the smaller details, like covers for keyboards and mice that can be easily cleaned between uses at staff workstations.
I was also interested in seeing how chains were responding to COVID-19. At Barnes and Noble, company leadership had to think through safety for both their stores and their distribution centers. When I spoke with CEO James Daunt, he talked about the importance of looking at what booksellers were doing the world over when deciding on safety protocols and procedures.
Some of the biggest pivots that had to be made for staff safety were in the warehouses, where turnstiles were removed and they had to rethink procedures like their process for punching in.
Unexpected Highs and Lows as Bookstores Reopen
When I asked Jason Jefferies of Quail Ridge Books what it was like for employees to be back in the store when it reopened, he let me know they’d never left. Around the same time things started shutting down, QRB was sponsoring The 2020 Tournament of Books, which is an annual bracket-style book competition run by The Morning News. The Tournament’s national website advertised that QRB was offering free shipping for books. As a result, their online business went up by 3,000% despite their doors being closed for the stay at home order.
“All of these gigantic indie bookstores had closed down, so we were getting orders from New York, San Francisco, all over the place,” Jefferies said. Fulfilling the online orders kept the store’s 40 employees busy while they couldn’t serve customers in person.
When I spoke to James Case Odum, he said The Strand didn’t have the same stroke of luck. When lockdown happened, they were in the middle of designing a new website. To make matters worse, the complete shutdown in New York meant they couldn’t get to their warehouse to fulfill online orders for a month. That meant a full month without making any revenue. In April, they were able to get their online business up and running again. As regulations relaxed, small groups of employees were able to enter the store to fulfill orders. They also enjoyed the support of outside vendors.
Following the Rules as Bookstores Reopen
Working in a library full-time, I’ve seen firsthand that bookish folk don’t always follow rules. Luckily, there was a consensus among those I interviewed that patrons weren’t pushing back on safety policies.
“In [New York], we’re so on top of each other all the time that we’re hyper-aware about what you can and can’t do. Mask wearing is something that most people have already adopted,” Odum shared.
In North Carolina, Jefferies has seen an outpour of support for the policies Quail Ridge Books has adapted. “People have said how comfortable they feel in our store because of all the requirements, which is comforting because you never know…Among the hundreds of people we’ve had in the store, there’s only been maybe three people that have been upset they had to wear a mask.” He pointed out that when people view mask-wearing as a political issue, they forget to see it as a necessary health and safety precaution.
Local Clientele and Loyal Customers
Historically, The Strand has been a gathering place for NYC book lovers, tourists, and students alike. In the midst of COVID-19, their clientele has shifted. Travel and tourism have ground to a halt. The student traffic has also dried up.
“Right now it’s mostly people that live in walking distance,” Odum said. “People don’t want to get on the subway to travel from Brooklyn or Queens.”
The decrease in foot traffic has made shifting attention to e-commerce even more critical. That said, Odum emphasized how nice it was to see familiar faces and loyal customers swing by the store again.
Other bookstores I spoke with are making it a point to meet their neighbors where they are. Used bookstore Dog-Eared Books in Raleigh, for example, is taking to the streets. For a flat fee of $5, co-founder Caitlynne Garland will provide same-day delivery to anywhere in Wake County. That’s no small feat given that Wake County spans over 800 square miles. On her busiest delivery day thus far, Garland made 15 drop-offs. “Luckily, Google Maps will help me find the most efficient route to make things easier,” she joked.
Generally, her store relies heavily on Facebook ads to get new people through the front door. Right now, they’re putting a pause on boosted posts and focusing on serving their existing clientele. Luckily, they have a devoted customer base that’s quick to snatch up the 30-minute browsing appointments they post on their Facebook page.
Anticipated Changes to Store Service Models
When I asked booksellers what changes they anticipated making to their service model as their areas move toward phase three, there was one thing that all of the indie stores had in common: They weren’t expecting to make many changes at all.
Odum from The Strand encouraged people to continue engaging with safe and socially distanced methods of connecting with the store, highlighting their store pick-up option.
Curbside pickup is also a popular option for QRB. At the time of our interview, they had over 300 orders packed up and ready to go for customers.
When asked about phase three, Jefferies pointed out that the guidelines still suggest that certain populations should continue self-isolation. “Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you have to do something,” Jefferies said. “Our priority is the safety of our staff and our customers, so we want to encourage people to stay at home.” Their free shipping certainly serves as a good incentive for people to do so. They’re also starting a rewards program called Readers’ Club Plus that will offer perks like streaming access to virtual events and author talks in addition to free shipping year-round.
Stephanie Stegemoller from Dog-Eared Books pointed out that local cases in our area were on the rise. “If it gets worse in North Carolina, we’ll have to close the store again.” Up until recently, she and her partner had been working separately. That way, if one of them got sick, the other person could still run the business. Based on the careful plans the co-owners put in place, it’s clear they care deeply for one another, their warehouse employees, and their community. While I could tell they weren’t excited about the prospect of closing again, it was evident that everyone’s wellbeing is their first priority.
What Booksellers Want You To Know
I asked each bookseller what they want their patrons to know.
The co-owners from Dog-Eared Books shared some of the ways that customers can help small booksellers through tricky times like these. “Liking our page, following us on social media, and sharing our posts with friends can make a huge difference.” They also suggested considering buying online gift cards from small bookstores for those difficult to shop for folks in your life. That way, the retailer has money flowing in and your loved one has the freedom to choose something they’ll enjoy.
Jefferies of QRB stressed that patrons need to extend patience to indie bookstores. “People are used to Amazon Prime and being able to get everything in two days. In the book industry, there are trends. Everyone wants the same ten or fifteen books at the same time. That requires books to be reprinted. Then the books have to be sent to warehouses, and most distribution centers are only working two or three days a week right now. When you order a book it might take a while to get to you, so plan ahead.”
Jefferies also pointed out that if people ordered from indie bookstores instead of Amazon all along, indies would already have the infrastructure in place for quicker turnaround times. “When making purchasing decisions, consider that indies are supporting your communities with events, with taxes…that money goes to your streets, your police, your firefighters, and your schools.”
Hope for the Future as Bookstores Reopen
Despite setbacks, everyone I spoke with had good things on the horizon. For many of them, those good things have included bringing back employees who were furloughed or laid off.
Barnes and Noble is beginning to bring back employees as bookstores reopen, but they’re still not back to their pre-COVID numbers. Restrictions around the number of people that could be in the store at a given time, reduced hours, and lower profits all played into that. Still, Daunt seemed confident that things would continue to move in a positive direction.
While Barnes and Noble locations were closed, many of the stores had small crews hard at work making tweaks and changes. When you go to your local B&N, chances are good you’ll see a fresh layout, an increase in new titles, and changes to the way certain categories are organized so it’s easier to hunt down the book you’re after.
When COVID-19 hit, The Strand had just signed a lease for a new brick and mortar location on the upper west side. If things go according to plan, they’ll be able to have a soft open in mid-July. They also have a brand new kiosk in LaGuardia airport. While they didn’t get the celebratory grand opening they anticipated, they’re hoping people will enjoy it once it feels safe to fly again.
Odum is optimistic for the future. Over the course of 93 years, The Strand managed to survive the Great Depression, 9/11, and Sandy. They can also survive this. “We’re positive and hopeful we’ll be around 93 years more.”
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