In the wake of the pandemic, Charis Books has been forced to close its brick-and-mortar operation. Its owners are relying on online orders, gift-certificate sales and donations to their nonprofit to continue paying their staff and operating both the business and nonprofit. So many independent bookstores are in a similar bind. Literary hubs such as the Strand in New York and Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., had to lay off employees; others like City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco and Marcus Books in Oakland, Calif., are relying on crowdfunding campaigns to stay afloat.
It’s not for a lack of demand. These past few months have seen a surge of interest in books. But the profits, by and large, are being siphoned to Amazon. The corporate behemoth, launched as “Earth’s Biggest Bookstore” in 1995, has dominated the book industry for years. Today, Amazon owns its own publishing unit, literary social platform and line of e-readers. (And Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Post.) The retailer accounts for more than half of all book sales in the United States, and some have projected that share to grow to 70 percent, based on Amazon’s performance in April.
Now, indie bookstores everywhere, confronted with the twin threats of Amazon and covid-19, are struggling to survive. And in response, readers across the country are banding together to save them.
One emerging player is Bookshop.org, an online marketplace founded by former publisher Andy Hunter to support indie bookstores and challenge Amazon’s market dominance. Instead of having to stock, package and deliver books on their own, indie storefronts can sell their books through the website — which handles the entire fulfillment process through a wholesaler — and reap 30 percent of the profits, all without customers having to set foot in a store.
Hunter launched Bookshop.org at the end of January with a team of five people. The outbreak of the coronavirus has since prompted an outpouring of support. On Feb. 1, the website had raised a little more than $2,000 for indie bookstores. By the end of April, it had raised over $1 million, and this month, that total is expected to grow sixfold.
Other online initiatives are taking shape, too. The Save Your Bookstore app allows users to pull up the information, offers and delivery/pickup options of 600 indie bookstores in 137 cities. Literary nonprofits the Book Industry Charitable Foundation and PEN America are donating emergency funds to booksellers and writers in need. The #SaveIndieBookstores campaign, a joint effort between several authors and literary organizations, has raised nearly $800,000. And a host of GoFundMe campaigns have taken off to support indie bookstores across the country.
Meanwhile, as the financial pressure mounts, indie bookstores are reinventing themselves from the inside out. In Washington, Second Story Books and Capitol Hill Books are delivering curated book bundles to customers’ doorsteps. In Sag Harbor, N.Y., Canio’s Cultural Cafe is offering book recommendations via phone and email, and shipping books for free. Bookstores are also adapting their calendars of events — book clubs, writing workshops, author Q&As — to online platforms. Charis Books is hosting three author events this week alone.
These efforts, big and small, remind us of the importance of indie bookstores, and of the ingenuity that has kept them going (and even growing) through economic recession and corporate domination. And now, at a time of mandated separation, bookstores are leveraging every tool at their disposal to do what they do best: stitch together a sense of community wherever and whenever it’s needed, one good book at a time.
So much has changed during this crisis, but indie bookstores have remained an essential service, whether they were deemed so or not. They are the heart of our communities. If we want that heart to keep beating, we have to support them. Because when this is over, the first thing I want to do is visit my local independent bookstore.