Bookselling Industry’s Harvey Relief Efforts Continue After Irma Batters Southeast U.S.

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    The bookselling industry has mobilized to help in the aftermath of Hurricane Harvey, which devastated parts of Houston and was immediately followed by Hurricane Irma, which ravaged islands in the Caribbean, tore through Florida, and barreled up the southeastern U.S. coast.

    Houston flood
    Many parts of the city of Houston were underwater after Hurricane Harvey hit. (photo: defense.gov)

    Harvey struck Southeast Texas on August 26, creating a wide-ranging disaster area, displacing at least 40,000 people, and killing at least 70. Since then, many book industry groups and publishers have launched initiatives to assist victims of the hurricane, and ABA has compiled a list of offers publishers have announced so far.

    The American Booksellers Association is also making a special emergency contribution of $5,000 to the Book Industry Charitable (Binc) Foundation in support of the organization’s efforts to help with hurricane relief and is matching all contributions made to Binc, up to $5,000, between August 31 and September 15. In addition to Binc and ABA, which have extended their help beyond Harvey, Baker & Taylor, Penguin Random House, Workman, and HarperCollins have also informed ABA of relief efforts that are specifically geared toward victims of Hurricane Irma. ABA will report back on other publishers’ Irma-specific efforts in an upcoming issue of Bookselling This Week.

    The majority of ABA member bookstores in the path of Hurricane Harvey did not suffer severe damage, so many have been contributing to relief efforts since then, both by raising money and by donating books to schools and shelters. Last week, Houston’s Blue Willow Bookshop owner Valerie Koehler received a call from Carole Davis of Arizona, who stumbled upon the store while searching online for a local bookstore to donate to. Now, Davis is sponsoring the store’s Hurricane Harvey Relief Gift Card Program, through which customers can buy a store gift card to fund staff selections of new books for children in shelters and schools that have lost their library collections. The program had already raised $12,500 by September 8, according to the Houston Chronicle. Gift cards can be purchased on the Blue Willow website.

    Outside of the Houston area, customers of Penguin Bookshop in Sewickly, Pennsylvania, have been invited to donate a dollar for every book they take from the store’s advanced reader copy selection and from some new books with slight imperfections, with proceeds benefitting the Houston Food Bank. Penguin Bookshop manager Mary Ferris told local news outlet the Tribune-Review that she hopes the store will raise at least $500, and that this is the first time the store has collected money for victims of a disaster. According to Ferris, in the four years since Susan Hans O’Connor has owned the store, “nothing this powerful has made an impact on so many people.”

    On Harvey’s heels came Hurricane Irma, which hit parts of the Caribbean and Florida last week before traveling up the coasts of Georgia and South Carolina. While Irma weakened to a big storm on Monday night, millions are still dealing with power outages, with CNN reporting that 4.4 million people in Florida are without power.

    Books & Books is one Florida store that was affected by Hurricane Irma. Owner Mitch Kaplan has been in the bookselling business in Miami for 35 years and has lived through many powerful hurricanes, including Andrew in 1992. When Irma hit, his stores were in the line of fire: Books & Books has five locations in the Miami area, three cafés, a store in the Cayman Islands, a store at the Miami International Airport, and another in Key West with Judy Blume.

    Kaplan said they were lucky enough that none of the stores had any major damage, but the real problem has been power outages in the stores and in employees’ homes. However, Miami Beach and the Coral Gables stores regained power and were able to open on Wednesday, and Kaplan said he hopes his other Miami stores will be able to reopen throughout the week. 

    “We have no power at our houses; we’re trying to get the stores up and running. Of the booksellers most are OK. One bookseller had flooding in her house, so she got in touch with Binc. We’ve been out of business for over a week. It’s a bit of a mess, but we’re getting through,” said Kaplan.

    Communication has been especially difficult during the storm, added Kaplan. “Our main server is down and we don’t have power, but we do have a phone tree, so the managers have been communicating with the bookstores and the cafés, and that’s how we’ve been able to do it.”

    While the loss of power and the loss of business have been hard to take, Kaplan said he is just hoping that everything will get back to normal as soon as possible. Encouragement from the bookselling and publishing communities has been helpful in that, he said.

    “I’ve gotten so many texts and well wishes from people,” said Kaplan. “I appreciate the work of ABA and Binc and the publishers. We feel the good wishes of the community and it makes you realize at this point that we are part of a larger bookseller, publishing, and writing community. The literary community has reached out to us.”

    Some bookstores in Florida, Georgia, and South Carolina are reporting that they are open for business, including Third House Books in Gainesville, Florida.

    On Monday, via Facebook, owner Kiren Valjee offered a space for people to congregate and get a cup of coffee on the store’s dime. He posted, “Hey guys! Kiren here. I’m getting the store ready to open for business tomorrow. In the meantime, stop on by this evening for some company and coffee on us. Hope everyone made it through as best as the storm would allow. See you soon!”

    On Tuesday night, Third House regained power and opened for a previously scheduled event with local author Brian Alan Ellis. That night, Valjee took to Facebook to announce a special edition of the store’s Borrowed Mic Night series this Friday. People will be invited to read from their favorite “storm” narratives (literally or figuratively), and the store will accept donations for victims of Hurricane Irma. Valjee said the store is currently researching the best organizations to donate to.

    Both of Avid Bookshop’s locations in Athens, Georgia, were without power until Tuesday, but the store’s Prince Avenue location opened up anyway; a post on the store’s Facebook page encouraged customers to bring a flashlight and come in to do some shopping: “No power? No problem! We are open at our Prince Ave location today ... BYOF (Bring Your Own Flashlight) xo.” Avid also informed customers that the store would be operating a little differently that day, with cash or check preferred over credit or debit, as well as a special sale: $5 off all Prince Avenue store T-shirts.

    After regaining power Tuesday night, Avid announced on the store’s Facebook page that its Five Points location would be open on Wednesday, while the Prince Avenue store would close until Sunday. The announcement was preceded by a gracious message describing Tuesday’s experience of operating without electricity: “Thanks for making today sunny and bright for us and for each other. We talked with Irma refugees from Florida and Georgia, and we witnessed people bonding over books and expressing concern about their neighbors’ Irma damage. For the millionth time, we saw how a neighborhood bookstore really is a community hub, a place where people who never would’ve crossed paths otherwise spark up lovely friendships. Some of those friendships are minutes long, while others may last a lifetime. We are honored to bear witness to the magic that emerges when readers gather in a space like Avid.”

    As recovery from Harvey continues and recovery from Irma begins in earnest, booksellers who have been affected by either storm are encouraged to contact Binc at (866) 733-9064 or help@bincfoundation.org, for access to anything from temporary lodging, food, and clothing to expenses not covered by insurance. In addition, stores that have a LIBRIS business insurance policy can make a claim by calling (888) 694-8585. LIBRIS was created​ by ABA​ specifically for booksellers.