Coronavirus Diaries: I Own a Bookstore. I Don’t Know How Much Longer We Can Survive.

Two hands holding a medical mask over an image of a bookshelf.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Taylor on Unsplash and iStock/Getty Images Plus.

Coronavirus Diaries is a series of dispatches exploring how the coronavirus is affecting people’s lives. For the latest public health information, please refer to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s website. For Slate’s coronavirus coverage, click here.

This as-told-to essay from Laurie Swift Raisys, the owner of Island Books in Mercer Island, Washington, has been edited and condensed for clarity from a conversation with Rachelle Hampton.

It was the start of last week when the store just kind of became a ghost town. We live on Mercer Island, which is a town of 20,000 people. On days when we would usually have people coming in the store, we had no one. Hours would go by where maybe one person would come in, and it was a little bit frightening. As a business owner, you rely on the community and the people that come in and shop at your store in order to pay your bills and pay your employees. Last week was incredibly stressful, and this week has been very stressful, and I don’t really see an end in sight right now.

We’re a community gathering place. Our slogan is “Real people, real books, real community,” and we’ve been around 46 years. My husband grew up on the island, and I worked part time for a number of years as a contractor. My contract ended one year and I decided I was going to do something different. I’d always wanted to own an island business, because I love this community. Everyone knows your name. They know your kids. You’ve known people since you were in kindergarten, if you grew up here. And I happened to walk into the bookstore one day at the right time. I just asked the former owner a question: “Roger, are you tired?” I said, “Because if you are, let me know. I would be interested in talking to you.” That was around Christmas of 2014. We signed the papers by July 2015.

I work a 60-hour work week, six days a week, and I’m here a lot. I get here between 7:30 and eight o’clock in the morning and I usually don’t leave until six o’clock. It’s a wonderful store, and we hope to be here many, many more years. But something like this can make a business disappear. I realized it was a big deal when I saw people panicking and hoarding toilet paper and hand sanitizer. It impacts not only my business but other people’s businesses on this island. It impacts my employees. This is their livelihood. We are trying everything we can to make sure that our staff stays healthy, and they all know to communicate with me if anything should happen, because their health is my utmost concern. As a business owner, I have to make sure that I can help them the best that I can. If one of them gets sick, all of us are affected. I have bills to pay, so it’s concerning. You don’t realize how much support you need and what you banked on for years.

A good percentage of our customers are people that are in a high-risk category for this virus, because they’re over 60. We have three or four retirement homes on the island, and I’ve been delivering books there, because they’ve been encouraged not to come out. So, they email us, or they call us. I live on the island, so I can drop books off anywhere. We’re promoting on our Instagram page and our Facebook page that you can support independent bookstores and independent retailers by ordering your books over the phone or sending us an email. We ship anywhere in the U.S. for free, and we always have. We’ve been pushing online orders a lot, but I really haven’t noticed an uptick in sales. We’re trying to be really smart about our restocking every day and what we’re buying. We might have to reach out to some of our publishers and contacts to figure out if we can extend terms on some of our bills, because if we’re not making money, it makes it very hard to spend money.

We’re trying to figure out creative ways to get people in the store, obviously in a very safe and thoughtful way, following the guidelines of the CDC and the WHO. We try to keep the space clean: We wipe it down every morning, and we wipe it down three more times throughout the day, and then we wipe it down before we leave. Everyone is encouraged to go and wash their hands at least once an hour. We have hand sanitizer in two locations. We had four big events, a couple that were offsite, to sell books for authors, and unfortunately, I had to cancel all of them. There are probably about 10 boxes of books in the back of my store that I now need to return. I lose money on that, because I didn’t get to sell any of them. The publishers don’t always send us call tags to return the books, so you have to eat the cost of the shipping to return them.

People are hibernating, and it makes it hard for us as a place of community. You cannot be in the business of social distancing, as they’re calling it, when you are a place that people come to for book clubs. We have three book clubs, we have events at least three or four times a month, and we have story time every Wednesday with kids. Six feet is a big gap when you’re a community gathering place. Our knitting book club did meet last week. They all talked about it and decided to sit in a circle a distance apart. They always bring scones or something, but they didn’t bring any food to share. I think everyone is very cautious. I’ve tried to reach out to a number of other bookstore owners to kind of get a feel for what they’re doing. Mainly asking them, “How are you managing events, how are you managing your employees?” There’s only a couple of bookstores whose demography kind of matches ours in the area. They’re either much bigger or they’re much smaller. We’re kind of all doing the same things, and it’s a support system more than anything, because I think we’re all panicking.

I don’t have an answer right now as to how long the business can sustain itself in this kind of situation. I can look at numbers until I’m blue in the face, and I’m not opposed to calling in favors from my landlord, calling in favors from publishers, but we have to take this crisis one day at a time. We’re getting new information, it feels like, every single day, especially here in Washington state. I’ve had a pit in my stomach for the last week and a half since it became real. It’s a small town, and they support when they can, but I think right now they’re all in crisis mode, because everyone thinks about themselves and their livelihood. I hope that I can weather it out, but right now, I’m scared to death that this business I bought almost five years ago could seriously be in trouble.