In a time that’s brought almost nothing but devastation for independent bookstores nationwide, it was supposed to be a moment of celebration.
Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore tucked in the alley near the intersection of Sherman Avenue and Clark Street, was scheduled to open its new storefront on Sherman the week before Thanksgiving, just in time for the holiday shopping rush. Then, in mid-November, Governor Pritzker issued new restrictions in response to soaring COVID-19 case numbers that would limit all retail stores to operating at 25% capacity.
The storefront on Sherman is significantly smaller than Bookends & Beginnings’ alley location, presenting a challenge to the bookstore’s staff who would’ve had to count the number of customers entering each store.
“[It’s] just such a logistical nightmare that it’s just not worth it to open the store, sadly,” said Nina Barrett, the owner and founder of Bookends & Beginnings.
During Illinois’s first lockdown, retail stores had to be completely shut down, and even staff members weren’t allowed to come to work to fulfill curbside or delivery orders. Bookends & Beginnings, unlike many local independent bookstores nationwide, already had a robust website prior to the pandemic, making it easier for Barrett to shift to an entirely online model in which orders were fulfilled by the store’s distributors and warehouses.
As restrictions began easing during the summer, Barrett and her staff added curbside pickup. In July, the store reopened for in-person browsing, although orders from the store’s website continued to make up a more significant portion of sales than they ever had in the store’s six year history. Now, with the new restrictions in place, Bookends & Beginnings is strictly limiting its walk-in business capacity for the first time.
“It’s a fairly big nightmare to be a retail business going into the holiday season with all of these restrictions on you, because most retail businesses make a third to a quarter of their annual revenue in the holiday season,” Barrett said. “But it’s a much bigger nightmare to think of anyone on your staff getting sick or your customers getting sick.”
The independent bookstore experience during COVID-19 has varied depending on where you look, but one thing is constant: it hasn’t been easy, and independent bookstores across the country are in trouble. In June, the American Booksellers Association performed a financial survey of their over 1800 member bookstores and discovered that over 20% were in danger of closing by January, and not just because of COVID-19.
“Even though in recent years, independent bookselling has seen a bit of a renaissance, they still have this underlying vulnerability,” said Allison K Hill, CEO of the American Booksellers Association. If independent bookstores do close, Hill said “the cause of death will be COVID, but the pre-existing condition, the underlying condition, will still be Amazon.”
As of October 2020, Amazon alone sold over half of all print books and over 80% of e-books, according to an investigation done by the House of Representatives Subcommittee on Antitrust, Commercial and Administrative Law. The corporation has achieved this level of dominance due to its low prices (it makes little, if any, profit from book sales) and fast shipping. Even though Amazon announced it would be temporarily deprioritizing orders of items like books that were deemed non-essential at the start of the pandemic, the threat the company poses to independent bookstores hasn’t changed.
Print book sales in the U.S. are up 6% since March, but according to Hill, Amazon has absorbed the majority, if not all, of that increase.
In response, the American Booksellers Association launched the #BoxedOut campaign during Amazon’s Prime Days in October with the goal of making consumers aware of the impact of ordering from Amazon as opposed to supporting a local business.
“That’s the thing we haven’t really been talking about,” Hill said. “The independent bookstores have always really focused on our value and chosen to emphasize that rather than talk about the competition.”
According to Hill, if a consumer purchases a product from Amazon, 4% of that money will recirculate into the local economy. On the other hand, if that individual chooses to purchase from a local business, that number jumps to 20%.
“I knew that diversity of voices and choices and what people read was at stake,” Hill said of her immediate response when she realized the pandemic wouldn’t be a short-term issue. She added that it’s been easy to stay motivated despite the pandemic’s length and toll.
“[My team and I] believe in getting books in people’s hands and access to information and education and the cultural significance, the political significance of these stores in our society.”
Hill mentioned that bookstores have been innovative in their responses to the pandemic and are finding creative ways to remain engaged with their customers. A store owner in Florida started doing personal book deliveries on her bike when she was forced to shut down; another store owner in Dallas created a readers’ hotline allowing customers to request a book recommendation and connect with booksellers.
Though bookstores may not be deemed essential businesses from a public health perspective, both Barrett and Hill emphasized that independent bookstores are some of the most important establishments in a local community.
“It’s a place [for people who believe] a book is still a very special, important, deep, profound way of exploring new worlds,” Barrett said. “An independent bookstore always takes that very seriously, and it serves as a gathering place for people who also feel that way. It serves as a manifestation of a community.”
Hill is further concerned that Amazon, given how it’s gained so much power in the book industry, could become a gatekeeper of literature and have a dangerous amount of control over what books are represented on shelves.
“If you care about reading, you have to care about independent bookstores,” she said. “I don't want a big corporation having so much power over what books I'm exposed to and what I ultimately read. I don't think that's a good thing for a democracy or for society, certainly not for the literary community.”