What Will Happen to Independent Bookstores?

Some are surviving the coronavirus crisis by selling online and livestreaming events. They don’t know how long it will work.

Bookshelves in a bookstore.
Many bookstores are now relying on online orders to stay afloat. Thomas Hawk/Flickr

Most of the time, Annie Philbrick would be happy to see the café in her bookstore bustling with customers. But three weekends ago, the crowd inside Savoy Bookshop and Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, only registered as trouble.

Governments were asking people to stay home to stem the spread of the coronavirus. Her busy shop was now a public health threat. “We were providing a space for people to come that wasn’t really safe anymore,” she said. So she decided to shutter the doors of Savoy and her other store in Mystic, Connecticut, Bank Square Books, before either state mandated their closure. “It was terrible to have to make that decision, because that’s what we provide,” she said. “Bookstores provide this community-gathering space.”

The coronavirus crisis, and the requirement that “nonessential” businesses close their doors while Americans isolate themselves, has already wreaked havoc on the economy, leading to a record 3.3 million people filing for unemployment the week of March 16. Many of them worked at small businesses for which the pandemic might be an existential threat. In a 2016 study, the median small business had enough cash to last just 27 days, while a 2018 survey found that 21 percent would fail after a month without cash flow. Bookstores run on even slimmer margins than the typical mom-and-pop shop—but the ones that have survived in the Amazon era have made it for a reason.

Until this month, independent bookstores were experiencing something of a cultural, if not necessarily financial, renaissance. Where they’ve persevered, they are often beloved community institutions, not just selling goods but bringing people together around events and serving as a central gathering place. They can also be ad hoc sanctuaries in times of difficulty. “Historically, we’re the ones who’ve served as havens of comfort, reassurance, and information to many people in need during a crisis,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in D.C. “We feel a closure to the public particularly acutely given that we’ve always prided ourselves on being there for communities in need during past crises.”

That many of these businesses have become such neighborhood fixtures helps explain the anguish and betrayal many people felt when two of the best-known bookstores in the country abruptly cut their workers as the pandemic began shutting down retail in mid-March. On March 16, McNally Jackson, an independent bookstore in New York City, announced it would lay off more than 80 employees. Then two days later, Powell’s Books, the giant independent bookstore in Portland, Oregon, laid off the “vast majority” of its staff.

Many fans of Powell’s, in particular, seemed to be shocked that such an iconic business would take so drastic a step. But the economics of bookselling have always been a challenge. “You’re dealing with a fixed-price product,” said Pamela French, executive director of the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which offers financial assistance for bookstore employees in need. The price of the goods they sell is printed right on the covers. And their other costs—rent, electricity, internet, payroll—are more or less fixed, too. There is rarely any extra cushion when a crisis hits.

With the coronavirus outbreak, the turbulence for independent bookstores came hard and fast. French’s organization received more than 240 applications for assistance from bookstore employees in the span of 10 days, coming from across the country. “That’s about closer to 18 months’ worth of volume for us,” she said. The weekend before we spoke, the organization had gotten an average of one request every 15 minutes. “The volume is definitely something like we’ve never seen before.”

For some stores, laying off hourly workers may be a way to ensure they could get unemployment benefits. That’s the call that Philbrick made, furloughing 32 employees at her two stores so that they could collect unemployment insurance and other financial assistance while the shops were closed. “It was awful,” she said. But she ran the math and decided they would be better off getting those benefits than on her payroll with their hours cut. She hopes that she can eventually bring them all back once she reopens.

For now, all that remain at Savoy Bookshop and Bank Square Books are two managers, a bookkeeper, and a social media manager. Philbrick and her skeleton crew are now shipping books for online orders and offering curbside pickup. She’s not sure how long she can last on that revenue. “It certainly helps keep the lights on, but it certainly doesn’t provide the income we’re used to,” she said. She’s asked the landlords at both locations to freeze her rent. Looking at her books, she thinks she can make it through the end of the Connecticut order to close nonessential businesses through April 22. But at some point, she may have to close for good. “Just lock the doors and turn the lights off and send everybody home and lay off the remaining staff.”

The coronavirus shutdown is like no other she’s faced, even the one in 2012, when her Mystic store flooded during Hurricane Sandy. But with that, “The tide came in and the tide went out,” she said. “I saw an end to that.” She knew roughly about how long it would take to move all the books out, rip out the floors and repaint the walls, and reopen her doors. But now, “The future is so uncertain, we don’t know how long this is going to go on,” she said. “The tide hasn’t gone out yet.”

How are other bookstores weathering this crisis? By getting creative, by tapping whatever reserves they have, and by counting on some of that accumulated community goodwill.

“We’ve transformed the store into a distribution center,” said Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York. “Almost like we had to switch the kind of business we are in 24 hours.” After the store closed to browsing on March 16, the staff turned it “upside down,” creating stacks of books to be able to access them as quickly as possible to fulfill online orders. The four days before we spoke, business had been even higher than normal. “My fingers hurt from tapping in manually … all the credit card stuff,” he said.

“People are ordering from all over the place [and] including these wonderful notes … thanking us for remaining in business,” he said. “It’s been incredible.”

Still, Fusco-Straub assumes the pace will slow the longer this goes on. And one of the shop’s core services is now gone. When he and his wife, author Emma Straub, decided to open Books Are Magic three years ago, they wanted to be “extremely events-focused,” trying to offer something nearly every day. But after carrying out a week of events in mid-March, they had to shut their in-store programming down.

Fusco-Straub is lucky: He’s been conservative enough with his spending over the years to be able to keep his whole staff on payroll so far. He’s committed to paying them what they would normally make for their regular shifts through April 4. Anyone who takes a day off doesn’t eat into his or her paid leave. But he’s wasn’t certain yet what would happen in early April.

It’s been just as hard to pause programming for Sarah Hollenbeck, co-owner of Women & Children First, a feminist bookstore in Chicago. “We have a very strong mission,” she said. “It’s rooted in these real-life gatherings.” Miss Linda has done story time every Wednesday since 1984; now that’s been canceled along with all other events for the near future. After the 2016 election, the store became “a hub for people to come and just cry and have these really intimate moments with strangers,” Hollenbeck said. But it can’t serve that purpose during this crisis. Not to mention that ticket and book sales at events were one of the store’s main sources of revenue. “It’s been pulled out from under us,” she said. “Everything we’ve been striving for we now have to reimagine.”

Now Hollenbeck and two other staff members go into the store every day to fulfill online orders. That takes a lot more time. The store’s website warns shoppers that it could take two to three weeks for orders to arrive. “We’re working as fast as we can,” she said. The good news is that there is a ton of demand, with orders coming in from across the country—so much so that online sales have been beating the baseline she and her co-owner set that would allow them to meet their most basic expenses. “It’s what’s keeping us afloat,” she said. Still, she’s had to reduce her staff’s hours, and some have left and filed for unemployment.

The day before I spoke to Graham at Politics and Prose, he had decided to close his doors, a week ahead of D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser’s order to close nonessential businesses. Staff is working either inside the store or from home to help fulfill orders. “We’ve seen a surge in online orders,” he said.

Graham moved some of his author talks online, allowing authors to attend from their homes and for customers to not only watch and ask questions but click links at the bottom to buy the books and support the store. The first had more than160 viewers. He’s also moved some of the class offerings online, such as a discussion of a travel memoir and another of Seamus Heaney’s poetry. “We’re focused on just trying to hang on as long as we can,” he said. He hopes to keep being able to pay employees, but “as revenues dwindle, we’re going to have to look at trimming staff.”

The strategies these owners have implemented are being copied at independent bookstores nationwide: offering curbside pickup where possible, fulfilling online orders, and moving events online. Online shoppers are keeping some propped up for now. After a surge of orders, Powell’s announced it had rehired 100 employees to process them (although the union representing the store’s employees says only some of them are booksellers, while the rest are managers doing jobs usually done by union members). Independent bookstores’ online sales “have spiked dramatically,” Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer at the American Booksellers Association, wrote in an email. “However, even with this increase, online sales will not fully recoup lost sales.”

The facade of Powell’s Books with people milling outside.
Powell’s Books in 2011. Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Chris Booth/Flickr.

Independent bookstores need help if they’re going to be able to reopen after the current crisis subsides. It could come from publishers, who could extend the payment deadline for books that were ordered before the crisis. They could also consider simply forgiving some of those invoices entirely, although they may also feel a hit if shuttered bookstores and a recession mean declining book sales.

Then there’s aid from the government. The Small Business Administration has offered loans, and while they come with good terms, they still have to be paid back eventually. The recent congressional relief package includes emergency grants and forgivable loans for small businesses if they keep employees on their payrolls, but that requires extensive paperwork and the faith that their loans will indeed be forgiven down the road. There is also only so much money—$349 billion in loans and $10 billion in grants—to meet astronomical need. It will likely take more federal funding to keep stores from shuttering nationwide.

The years leading up to this current moment were good ones for independent bookstores. “Over the past few years, there has been growth in the number of indie bookstores, fueled by both a commitment to ongoing innovation of their businesses and their unique and very strong ties to their local communities,” Cullen said. His membership has grown for the past nine years in a row, and annual sales had grown in recent years.

But without more financial assistance, communities across the country could lose a central institution. Philbrick’s Bank Square Books has been open for 30 years. “We are the cornerstone of our community,” she said. “I can’t imagine us not being there.”