These are very strange times in general, but they are especially strange times for independent bookstores.
Unlike Amazon, which thrives on discounts (and being an economy-remaking force of nature), independent bookstores are places that people gather. You browse, you buy a cup of coffee, you hang out, you go to events.
They are centers of a community’s intellectual and social life. They are, in the words of groundbreaking sociologist Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book, a "great good place."
All of that has been put on hold, thanks to the coronavirus pandemic; we can no longer assemble at great good places. Their doors are shut, like other nonessential businesses in town.
Which means that independent bookstores face an existential threat. But because they are independent, their stories all are a little different.
Take the Austin institution BookPeople, which celebrates its 50th birthday this year. It is the biggest player in the Austin independent bookstore games and has been for quite some time.
"Things are okay right now," David Matthis, chairman of BookPeople’s board, says. "We’ve seen some volume, though not enough to sustain us in the long term."
He adds that BookPeople has committed to paying employees through April 14 and that his landlord is "working with us" on rent.
Matthis says BookPeople was never designed for online operation, so at the moment, they are using the increasingly popular Bookshop website, which aims to take on the Amazon book monopoly. Local stores can register with and sell books through the website. A customer can go to Bookshop, pick their bookstore of interest and order their next read, sometimes at a discount (just like Amazon). Orders are fulfilled through a wholesaler called Ingram. The top 30% of the profit goes to the local bookstore.
Matthis says he is not quite sure if Bookshop is a long-term solution to selling online or a stop-gap until the pandemic shutdown is over. "It’s not simple to operate the online business out of our store," he says, "and whatever we do, we want to do in a manner that is safe for our employees.
"As soon as you make a plan, the landscape shifts," he adds.
Bookshop might help, but it’s not a panacea. Take Malvern Books, which is located near the University of Texas campus and specializes in books from small presses.
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Owner Joe Bratcher says he closed the store entirely as soon as COVID-19 cases were confirmed at UT. He says Malvern is "not really set up for mail order or online sales," so the store has just signed up with Bookshop. He is hopeful that will move some units.
However, since Malvern specializes in small presses, many of which are not distributed through Ingram but through the company Small Press Distribution, there are things on Malvern’s physical shelves that simply aren’t going to be available through Bookshop.
"Some of the presses we carry might publish two books a year. That is what we specialize in," Bratcher says. But he doesn’t want to lay anyone off and hopes to pay his employees though April 30. Bratcher says his landlord has been "very kind."
BookWoman, which has been Austin’s feminist bookstore for 44 years, was hit with a post-pandemic rent increase, retroactive to January. The other businesses in the North Lamar Boulevard strip mall anchored by Titaya's also were affected.
BookWoman and its owner, Susan Post, have a loyal fanbase; Austin author Amy Gentry publicized the rent increase on Facebook, which Post says brought her legal advice and 10 orders for books.
"It’s hard to know if we can sustain what we are doing," Post says. "We are getting tons of (electronic) orders. We have always had the capacity for e-orders, but now we are really learning the ins and outs of e-commerce."
One customer purchased several books and was surprised about BookWoman’s offerings: "She said, ‘I thought I could only order what I perceived as your narrow offerings,’" Post says. "I said, ‘No, we carry all kinds of stuff.’ So I got a new customer."
Post also has tried to stock more popular titles. "We have plenty of the new books by Hilary Mantel and Rebecca Solnit and the new N.K. Jemisin," she says. "Where we would sell one or two of those sorts of things (normally), we are now selling five or 10."
Book stores can get newly released books to sell. Comic book stores? Not so much.
Last week, Austin Books & Comics’ Brandon Zuern — who manages the comic book shop just down the road from BookWoman on North Lamar Boulevard, which has been in the same spot since it opened in 1977 — sat down at a table and started packing up a 1984 Batmobile from the Super Powers toy line.
He was inside Outlaw Moon, the gaming and vintage toy shop that’s part of the three-store complex Austin Books & Comics owns in the same strip mall. (The other is Guzu Gallery, a pop art gallery and collectibles shop.) All three stores have been closed to the public for weeks.
The Batmobile toy "is something a customer purchased specifically because he wanted to support the stores, so that’s good," Zuern said.
Austin Books & Comics laid off all of their part-time employees, more than 80% of the staff. They are now down to four full-time employees. "We have told everyone we had to lay off they are welcome back the minute we can reopen," Zuern said.
Before city and county leaders issued the current shelter-in-place order, the store was offering curbside service. Now they’re just doing mail orders.
The vast majority of weekly comic books, including those from all of the big publishers like DC, Marvel, Image and Dark Horse, are distributed by one company, Diamond Comic Distributors. Diamond announced late last month that distribution would end March 25 until further notice. On March 31, Diamond stopped payments to publishers.
Other than weather delays, for the first time ever, new comics simply didn’t show up in stores on April 1, eliminating the reason many customers come into comic book stores every week.
Fortunately for Austin Books & Comics, their stores stock games, toys and collectible art ("Thank God we diversified over the years," Zuern says).
The store also has large selections of back issues, trade paperbacks (or collected editions) and graphic novels (a term denoting more literary standalone comic books, as opposed to serialized issues).
"Folks have been stuck at home, looking at holes in a run of a title and giving us a call," Zuern said. "We are under no illusions that we are essential, but we love (to help keep) people entertained and in their homes and sane during an insane time."
On the other side of the river, South Congress Books owner Sheri Tornatore makes sure to walk around her store front and her block as often as possible.
"It’s a small group of independent shops here," Tornatore says. "Bookstores or candy stores or whatever. You want to keep an eye on each other, make sure the store is OK."
South Congress Books specializes in used and antique books, so Tornatore’s concerns are a little bit different than those of BookPeople or Austin Books & Comics. She has been selling to locals and doing curbside service; now she’s focusing more on mail orders.
"We aren’t buying anything right now," she says, "but we can ship you whatever we have in stock, just give us a call or drop us an email."
She asks about the other stores, well aware that good, in-person book shopping is part of what makes Austin, Austin: "I bet we’re all hustling."