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

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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.

ImageGreenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn is using its storefront to urge customers to shop at independent bookstores. 
Credit…Amr Alfiky/The New York Times

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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Like many other stores, Vroman’s is hosting online events to promote new books, which can attract attendees from all over the country but generally bring in almost no money. Last month, it emailed customers, imploring them to come back.

“Our foot traffic and sales are improving, but still down almost 40 percent, which will not keep us in business,” it said. “If Vroman’s is to survive, sales must increase significantly from now through the holidays.”

At McNally Jackson Books, which has four locations in Manhattan and Brooklyn along with two stationery shops, sales are “unimaginably bad,” according to its owner, Sarah McNally. All six shops combined are now bringing in less than its SoHo location would in a typical month.

SoHo, normally one of New York City’s busier shopping destinations, was quiet on a perfect fall afternoon last week, its normal crush of human traffic replaced with a smattering of people on each block. “Something I’ve never known is how many of my customers are tourists,” Ms. McNally said. “I wonder if it’s more than I thought.”

Credit…Calla Kessler/The New York Times

The news is not all dire, however, even for some big stores. Third Place Books, which has three large locations in the Seattle area, is down about 20 percent for the year, said Robert Sindelar, its managing partner, which, in 2020, is a figure he is happy with. He attributed its relative success to its locations in the suburbs, which attracts nearby residents who are working from home.

Source Booksellers, a Black-owned store in Detroit, saw an uptick in orders after the death of George Floyd, as readers sought out books on racism as well as ways to support African-American businesses.

“We had business from different states we had never seen before,” said Alyson Jones Turner, who owns the store with her mother, Janet Webster Jones. “Our being able to walk now has a lot to do with that moment.”

Allison K. Hill, the chief executive of the American Booksellers Association, said the group surveyed its 1,750 members in July and received responses from about 400 of them. Of those who answered, about a third said their sales were down 40 percent or more for the year. But another 26 percent said their sales were flat, or even up. The organization plans to do another survey in January, and Ms. Hill said she expects that positive number to have eroded.

Even at stores where sales have held on, profits are often down, Ms. Hill said. In the best of times, the margins at a bookstore are paper thin — traditionally, a successful shop hopes to make 2 percent in profits — but operating during a pandemic is even more expensive.

“We’re working harder for less this year,” said Kelly Estep, one of the owners of Carmichael’s Bookstore in Louisville, Ky.

Mailing a book to a customer requires more time and labor than ringing it up at the register. Some stores are offering hazard pay to their employees or have dedicated a staff member to greet people at the door, making sure they’re wearing masks and sanitizing their hands before they start running their fingers across the books.

Credit…Jeremy M. Lange for The New York Times

Even the cost of now-essential supplies has taken a toll on the many bookshops that operate on a shoestring.

“If someone told me this time last year I would be spending $20,000 on postage and shipping materials and P.P.E. and extra cleaning for the stores,” said Jamie Fiocco, an owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, N.C., and the board president of the American Bookseller Association, she wouldn’t have believed it. “We just didn’t have those line items in our budget, or if we did, they were inconsequential.”

Hanging over all this is the holiday season. Ms. Fiocco said her store does about 30 percent of its business in the last eight weeks of the year, and there are days in December when she sells more in an hour than in a normal day. But this year, customers won’t be able to freely swarm the store at the last minute, so booksellers are trying to encourage early shopping.

Perhaps most worrying is that the supply chain has been under strain. There have been issues with shippers, limited capacity at warehouses and backlogs at printing companies, where books delayed from the spring are running up against releases planned for the fall. Among those is a new memoir by former President Barack Obama, which is scheduled for publication Nov. 17 and expected to be the biggest book of the year.

“There’s a Hail Mary here where the holiday season could really change things,” said Ms. Hill. “To have a book like that come out right at this critical time, it could make a huge difference.”

Many store owners are afraid the printers won’t be able to keep up with demand, or that publishers won’t prioritize indies if supply gets tight, so they’re placing large orders up front for some of the biggest books of the season, like a new cookbook by Yotam Ottolenghi. (Mr. Obama’s book has required other adjustments: At 768 pages, it will weigh 2.5 pounds, said Matt Keliher at Subtext Books in St. Paul, Minn., so the store had to raise shipping fees or else it would lose money on every sale.) Because the demand has been so enormous, Mr. Obama’s publisher Penguin Random House will be sending orders out in batches for stores across the country, from little indies to the big boxes.

“If we could sell 1,000 copies between November 17 and the New Year, that’s going to make a huge difference in us being viable, so we need those books,” said Gayle Shanks, an owner of Changing Hands Bookstore, which has locations in Phoenix and Tempe, Ariz. “We’re really trying to get the message out, to help customers understand that not just for bookstores but local retailers and local restaurants, if they want them to be there when the pandemic over, they have to support those businesses now.”

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