Next chapter: COVID-19 and Oregon’s indie bookstores

Special Reports

How sellers adapted, and what changes they may carry forward as the state reopens

Sally McPherson of Broadway Books dons a facemask in preparation for curbside pickups in this April 11, 2020 photo (Broadway Books/Facebook)

CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — In mid-March, independent bookstores across the country closed their doors indefinitely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now two months later, restrictions are easing in Oregon, but most booksellers are holding off on reopening.

“We just want to do it in a way that’s safe for everyone, and safe for our business,” said Emily Powell, owner and CEO of Powell’s Books. The in store browsing process relies on people being able to relax, so management is grappling with ways to make that possible.

Oregon’s most famous independent bookstore felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic almost immediately. Around March 17, Powell said the company had to lay off most of its 500 employees, retaining a staff of about 50. When it became clear that they could sustain some online business, the company began to hire some employees back. Now, they’re back up to about 200, Powell told KOIN 6 News. The store is getting ready to add curbside service. Sales fluctuate vastly from day to day, but she said the store is seeing approximately one quarter of usual sale levels.

Powell's Books 1_258644

It’s a similar story for establishments that don’t have an international following.

Third Street Books in McMinnville is seeing sales down 30-40% from this time last year, owner Sylla McClellan said.

Being forced to close their doors removes one of the main advantages indie bookstores have over their corporate counterparts: a warm, inviting atmosphere in which you feel like you’re buying books from a friend, not just a business.

“This is not spiritually sustainable for an indie bookseller,” Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) Brian Juenemann said. “Connecting with a customer … that’s what they live for.”

With that in-person connection shut off, booksellers scrambled to find alternatives. Some already had online ordering capabilities, but others had to act fast and join the digital age.

McClellan said her website did not get a lot of traffic pre-pandemic.

Third Street Books in McMinnville could technically reopen under new guidelines from the state, but owner Sylla McClellan said they’re waiting until they can be sure it’s safe (Third Street Books).

“It was something I was grateful to have as an option but not something I put a ton of effort into, mostly because we’re a browsing store and most people in our community that shopped from our website always clicked on the pick up in store option anyway,” she said. That has completely reversed now.

In the first six weeks of the shutdown, Juenemann said he heard from numerous store owners who said their online and phone orders had ballooned from just a couple a day, to several dozen.

“That’s certainly not equaling what they would do by having customers in the store, but it was just just enough to keep them afloat,” he said.

Sally McPherson of Broadway Books told KOIN 6 News their sales have actually been somewhat higher than usual, but so have their expenses as the store racks up more shipping and delivery costs. In the past two months, they’ve delivered about 200 packages of books and shipped some 500 more to their “incredibly” supportive customers.

“We have certain customers who are putting orders in almost every day,” McPherson said, noting that there’s no way they can possibly be reading this much. “People don’t want us to leave. We’ve been in this neighborhood almost 30 years.”

One of the big impacts to their bottom line comes from canceled events, particularly offsite author talks where the Northeast Portland shop would provide the books. Even as the team at Broadway eyes a limited reopening in June, those author events probably won’t return any time soon.

“I don’t think people will be comfortable being inside for an event,” McPherson said.

Booksellers have also gotten creative with new ways to engage customers. Some have introduced mystery book bundles, where customers give them a genre and staff pick out a selection of books. At Third Street, McClellan said some customers have been calling the store and doing “conversation browsing,” asking staff what they’re reading. The owner of the Book Nook in Canby has even done Facebook live videos where she shows viewers what books are in store currently.

“There’s nobody who just sat down and waited for it to pass,” Juenemann said. “Everybody innovated in one way or another.”

Epilogue…

Most retail stores can reopen as long as they aren’t in a strip-mall and are able to meet the new COVID-19 health guidelines issued by the state last week. Those guidelines include maintaining 6 feet of distance between customers and employees, and frequently sanitizing high traffic areas of the store. However, none of the booksellers KOIN 6 News spoke with plan to open their doors for at least a couple more weeks.

McClellan said Third Street Books may open for appointments first, to control how many people are in the store at once. There are a lot of safety precautions to consider, like plexiglass barriers at the register, moving furniture to allow for more distance between people, and figuring out how to clean books after people are done browsing.

Booksellers also expect online sales to remain a more important part of their business.

“In today’s world with all of this online commerce happening everywhere … we can be in on that game,” Juenemann said. “We still need you to come in because that’s the bread and butter … but when you can’t, don’t get lazy and just go alphabetically to that first thing that starts with A on the list. Think of us and we can take care of you too.”

Third Street Books in McMinnville has been closed to foot traffic since March. As COVID-19 restrictions loosen, owner Sylla McClellan is weighing her options for reopening (Third Street Books)

As with so many other businesses, COVID-19 has shifted operations in a way never seen before. However McClellan, who’s run her store since 2004 and weathered the 2008 recession, said independent bookstores have always had to adapt to changes. That may help them as they enter the post-pandemic business landscape.

“We have a lot of amazing independent bookstores across the state and a lot of us have been around for a really long time,” she said. “A lot of that is because we are able to pivot and do what we need to do to survive.”

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