Your Local Bookstore Wants You to Know That It’s Struggling

Independent booksellers are desperate for customers to return, and not just for an online reading.


By Elizabeth A. Harris

The signs started appearing in bookstore windows this week.

“Buy books from people who want to sell books, not colonize the moon.”

“Amazon, please leave the dystopia to Orwell.”

“If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there.”

The message: Buy from these shops, or they won’t be around much longer. According to the American Booksellers Association, which developed the campaign, more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the pandemic began. Many of those still standing are staring down the crucial holiday season and seeing a toxic mix of higher expenses, lower sales and enormous uncertainty.

Even though book sales have been a bright spot in an exceedingly grim national economy — they rose more than 6 percent so far this year compared with last year, according to NPD BookScan — most of those purchases are not going through independent stores. Surging interest in specific categories, from educational books to titles on race and antiracism, continues to boost some booksellers but has dropped off for others.

Still, local independent stores have hustled and reinvented themselves during the pandemic. Mailing books to customers, which used to be a minuscule revenue stream for most shops, can now be more than half of a store’s income, or virtually all of it for places that are not yet open for in-person shopping. Curbside pickup has become commonplace.

Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., sends personalized URLs to customers with a list of handpicked recommendations. Green Apple Books in San Francisco raised $20,000 selling T-shirts, hoodies and masks that said “Stay home, read books.” Other stores have pleaded for customers to donate money.

All that still may not be enough.

“Somebody said to me, ‘Boy, you must be raking it in with all the online business you’re getting,’” said Christine Onorati, an owner of Word bookstores in Brooklyn and Jersey City, N.J. “It makes me laugh.”

Bookstores across the country face different challenges depending on any number of factors, including their local economies and how they have been affected by the coronavirus. But some broad trend lines have started to emerge, perhaps most of all that bigger, right now, is not better.

Take Vroman's Bookstore, a 126-year-old institution in Pasadena, Calif. It has more than 200 employees, 20,000 square feet of space and the rent to go along with it. In a normal year, it hosts anywhere from 300 to 400 events, bringing in authors for readings and signings, along with customers who buy books and maybe a glass of wine from the bar. But none of that is happening this year.

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