The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

People want to support their local bookstores. They might be hurting them instead.

During the pandemic, well-meaning book lovers have turned to their local independent bookshops for their literary needs. (iStockphoto)

As the novel coronavirus takes its toll on businesses all over the world, many well-meaning consumers have flocked to local community bookstores. However, increased demand on these small shops has put a strain on business owners.

Even worse, some have received backlash from impatient and disgruntled customers for slow shipping or sold out inventories. According to seven independent bookstore employees who spoke to The Washington Post, customers complain about orders taking too long, asking when they will get their books, and even cancel orders because they don’t want to deal with the slow process.

“Investing in a small business owned by a Black, Latinx Womxn was supposed to be an act rooted in resistance to the many systems that operate to limit our potential,” wrote Kalima DeSuze, owner of Brooklyn-based bookshop Café Con Libros, in a blog post in June. “It was an invitation to consider investing in small businesses versus Amazon as part of your tool belt of living more intentionally in a racist, sexist and capitalistic society.”

Independent bookshops such as Brooklyn’s Books are Magic see themselves as community hubs, said Colleen Callery, the bookstore’s marketing and communication’s manager.

“We invest the money we make into local efforts such as providing books to low-income families, partnerships with schools, event planning, and working with mutual aid groups and CSAs,” said Callery.

These stores also pride themselves on getting to know their customers, offering personalized book recommendations, community book clubs, and book subscription packages. When the pandemic hit, juggling these community efforts with thousands of orders coming in a day became overwhelming.

“It’s really important for folks to be invested in the actual business. To care, to subscribe to their newsletter, to their blogs, to care about the humans behind the business.”
— Kalima DeSuze, owner of Café Con Libros in Brooklyn, N.Y.

The start of the pandemic meant setting up online ordering for the first time for many independent bookstores. At Books are Magic three staff members manually entered in every credit card number that placed an order, meaning it took days to process orders. At Canadian store Librairie Saint-Henri Books, the manager, Alex Nierenhausen, takes orders through Instagram messages, and can only accept payments once customers come to pick up their books. In both cases, customers complained or even canceled their book orders.

“There’s so much momentum for a hashtag, but once there’s a roadblock, like their book taking too long to come in, [customers] realized this might not be something they’re really interested in doing,” said Sruti Islam, an employee at Librairie Saint-Henri Books.

Since George Floyd’s death, anti-racist titles such as “Me and White Supremacy,” by Layla Saad hit the top of every bookseller list, and consumers looked to support independent bookshops across the country, not just ones within their local communities, said Jeffry Blair, co-owner of EyeSeeMe African American Children’s Bookshop in St. Louis, Missouri. People with huge followings like Usher and Ibram X Kendi used their social media platforms to promote independent businesses like Jeannine A. Cook’s Harriet’s Bookshop in Philadelphia. Cook said she was extremely excited to see this kind of national support, but also overwhelmed. “Things kind of exploded for us. We went from having 3,000 social media followers to having 35,000 social media followers in three days. I’m one person, and I wasn’t prepared for that.”

“Right now, I have emails from customers that I need to address,” Cook said. “I try to do that every day, and then once a week I do an overnight where I just do it all night long, because I’m also in school, I’m a mother, I play many roles in the society. I ask my customers to please be patient with me, because I don’t want to leave anybody hanging.”

Because of demand, many books sold out. Ninety percent of the orders coming in were the same five to ten titles at the top of every anti-racist book list, said Nierenhausen. “Remember that the publishers were hit with Covid too,” said Blair. “With them working at 25 percent capacity, the bottleneck of getting inventory from them lost us two or three weeks.”

He added the fact that these books were so popular that they had to go for a reprint. “And that happens in China, which has its own issues with what China and the U.S. has going on,” Blair said. “A lot of times, people think it’s just you. Like [the customers say] ‘I try to support you, and you know, you’re not doing a good job.’ That’s the worst thing a business owner wants to hear.”

Business are working overtime trying to communicate to their customers why their orders are taking so long to get to them. DeSuze, owner of Café Con Libros, wrote a heartfelt blog about the complaints she was seeing from purchasers. People were demanding to get their books immediately, claiming “it can’t take that long to ship a book from Brooklyn to Manhattan.” She offered a newsletter to her supporters explaining why this process takes some time, but told The Post that people weren’t reading it, wanting personalized responses to their requests they put in.

“It’s really important for folks to be invested in the actual business. To care, to subscribe to their newsletter, to their blogs, to care about the humans behind the business,” DeSuze told The Post.


An Aug. 23 article misspelled the name of an independent bookstore. It is Café Con Libros.

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