By Hunter Levy
for Inland 360
In the 1990s, large chain bookstores put significant financial pressure on local mom-and-pop shops. In 2007, Amazon released its iconic e-reader, the Kindle, and less than four years later Amazon was selling more ebooks than hard copies.
Many feared online shopping and ebooks were sounding the death knell for bookstores across the country. However, independent bookstores not only survived but, before the shutdown, were opening at decade-high rates, according to the American Booksellers Association. Independent bookstores must be agile and malleable to stay alive, and area bookstore owners are showing flexibility in their response to one of the biggest economic shocks in recent memory.
Like other businesses with the capability of doing so, many bookstores have shifted their services online. Bookpeople of Moscow has taken the shutdown in stride, transforming from a primarily brick-and-mortar store to an online one. Carol Price, owner and manager, said that while the store previously did around 15 to 20 percent of its sales online, it is now doing 100 percent of its sales that way.
“You know, the store is not a retail store anymore; it’s sort of an order-processing center. We had to set up some tables and get our box-packing area organized,” Price said.
The transition was difficult at first, she said, requiring more work hours to make less money, but she sees the situation as a chance to grow in an area of business that previously took a back seat to in-person purchases.
“We definitely have looked at this as an opportunity to develop the website in a better way — make more recommendation pages, more browsing pages to help people find things on the website. We don’t have the power that is behind the Amazon site, but we can get all the same books; it is just a matter of helping people find them.”
Other stores in the area haven’t made such a smooth transition to solely relying on online sales. While Bookpeople of Moscow has earned about half its usual revenue during the shutdown, And Books Too in Clarkston, which sells new and used books, has only made about a sixth of its expected income this time of year. Owner Judi Wutzke believes that for a significant portion of the people who use local bookstores, online orders aren’t an option.
“We service a lot of customers who do not want to use their credit cards online and who, in fact, may not have a credit or debit card and don’t have computers,” Wutzke said. “That whole segment of the population is being unserved during this time.”
Brused Books in Pullman specializes in used books and is hindered by an inability to make trades with customers to add to its selection. Brused Books is known for its massive inventory and willingness to make deals with customers.
“The diversity of what we’ve got differentiates us from other used bookstores,” said Monique Slipher, a longtime employee. “They’re all used, so people bring us the latest bestseller. Michelle Obama’s book, we might have that on the shelf, but of course we have the most strange and esoteric things you can imagine too, old and new. We have upwards of 90,000 to 100,000 books.”
But without the ability to bring in books regularly, and with summer being the store’s busiest time of year, Slipher believes Brused Books could be in trouble. For a store that thrives on personal interactions with customers, shutting the doors has been tough.
“We have tons of local customers that can’t come in, and they’re unhappy. We are getting a little bit of local business, but it’s not very much; there have been a couple of parents who have been ordering a packet of books every week to read to their kids. Maintaining the connection with our large regular customer base is really hard,” Slipher said.
Is the COVID-19 crisis giving us a peek into what life would be like in a fully digital world? When the pandemic’s shutdowns become a thing of the past, BookPeople’s Price doesn’t think digital hangouts will remain the new normal.
“People are realizing that videoconferencing is not going to take the place of being able to get together with friends, or to go to an author event and to be in a room full of people listening to an author talk or read. You can’t really replicate that experience in the digital world. There is a huge new appreciation for the kind of place that Bookpeople is, so hopefully that is something people appreciate as a result of being stuck without (bookstores).”
As state-ordered restrictions begin to ease, booksellers must decide on an approach to reopening. Wutzke said that before Washington’s stay-at-home order, And Books Too was sanitizing everything in the store and those practices will continue when the store reopens. As for social distancing, bookworms have been doing that for years.
“Book buyers keep their distance by nature, so 6 feet is good,” Wutzke quipped.
Price believes that the Moscow community has been great about observing social distancing rules and recommendations, but even if the store is allowed to reopen soon, she doesn’t want to move too fast.
“I want to make sure that people aren’t looking at us as a possible reason why cases go up. I don’t want to be part of a problem. It is something we’ll work on as a community,” she said.
Brused Books is waiting to hear what the next order is for Washington. In the meantime, employees there are happy to engage with book lovers from a distance.
“The best way for the community to interact with us is still by phone or email. One of us is in the store everyday, usually in the afternoons,” Slipher said.
Area bookstore owners voiced appreciation for people’s support, whether it was through ordering books online, purchasing gift cards or sending them a few words of encouragement.