West Coast Indie Bookstores Respond to COVID-19

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Over the past few days, Bookselling This Week checked in with independent booksellers in Seattle, Los Angeles, and San Francisco to see how the outbreak of the novel coronavirus in the United States is affecting business. Due to the rapid progression of the outbreak and related restrictions of residents, the experiences of indie bookstores and other small businesses appear to be changing day by day; these responses were collected between March 6 and March 10.

As the situation continues to evolve, the American Booksellers Association has launched a new BookWeb.org page filled with event updates, general outbreak information, and retailer resources; check back often for new information. 

ABA CEO Allison Hill has been making calls to stores as well to check in and see how ABA can support them. Several stores reported concerns about events being cancelled — conferences where they sell, in-store author events, and school author events — and the impact on sales through spring. Many stores reported sales being only slightly down or “soft” through the weekend, with a more significant drop marking the last two days.

In Seattle, public health officials announced last week new recommendations to reduce the risk of spreading COVID-19, which urged people with underlying health conditions and people over the age of 60 to practice social distancing by avoiding large gatherings of people.

Georgiana Blomberg, owner of Magnolia’s Bookstore in Seattle, told BTW that this recommendation hasn’t greatly impacted her business yet. “It’s hard for us to tell for sure because late February/early March is always our quietest time anyway,” she said. “I think our business is down a small amount, but we’re just a small bookstore in a small community, and I think that for that reason, we’re not as affected as bigger stores.”

People aren’t going to the mall or downtown, Blomberg said, but they aren’t exactly staying indoors, either, which means they’re going into their local small business district. “If for some reason they enact rules telling us all to stay in our houses, I’m sure it will affect us [eventually].” she said. “But so far, I’ve seen plenty of people over 60 in my store...and, luckily, none of us have shown any symptoms. But if we do, we’ll be staying home.”

Still, Magnolia’s is taking precautions, Blomberg said, which include frequently disinfecting surfaces, washing hands, and removing toys from the store’s children’s area. 

In California, the Los Angeles Times reported that coronavirus “continues to spread,” with officials attempting to curtail mass gatherings of 1,000 or more people. Additionally, several universities in the states have shifted to temporary online learning.

Alex Maslansky of Stories Books & Cafe in Los Angeles told BTW that he hasn’t noticed an impact on his store yet. “We haven’t noticed any extravagant changes outside the medium for sales in the last week,” he said. “It’s impossible to say. We’re not going to be alarmist, but we’ll make the necessary changes if need be.” 

At this time, Maslansky noted that he isn’t planning on cancelling any events, but Stories is taking precautions in-store. “We’re wiping out surfaces down more than we usually would, and staff is on alert to be extra cautious and not come in if they’re feeling sick.” Maslansky also urged booksellers to stay calm during this time.

Ryan Smith, manager of Dog Eared Books’ Valencia location, said it’s still too soon to say how much their business has been impacted. “Figures for the weekend and from Monday were maybe a little low, but it’s in such a close margin, it could have just been a slow weekend,” he said. “I think we’re still waiting to see what’s going to happen here.”

But, Smith added, Dog Eared is expecting things to slow down in the next week or so. While Dog Eared’s Valencia location doesn’t host events, decisions regarding events at its other two locations are up to the event organizer’s discretion and will be made on a case-by-case basis. 

As far as precautions are concerned, Dog Eared has instituted strict hand-washing protocols, in addition to having hand sanitizer behind the counter. Booksellers are also sanitizing surfaces often. 

Smith noted that his location is in a smaller neighborhood, which could be why his business hasn’t felt the impact of COVID-19. “Right now,” he added, “we’re just playing everything by ear and making decisions day by day.” 

Booksellers are invited to reach out to ABA’s editorial team to share their experiences with the outbreak for future reporting.