Overseeing a business, organization, or even a household during a pandemic—with its uncertainty as new information unfolds daily—is like driving a vehicle down a mountain through a deep fog. A crisis of the magnitude of COVID-19 magnifies every strength and weakness we have. And, while the early days were terribly stressful, lessons have been learned through this experience that will make us all stronger when life returns to some semblance of our past.
At Gramercy Books and for our peers across the country, the bookselling business has rapidly changed since the stay-at-home orders necessitated by COVID-19. This shift has been even more profound than the industry’s existential moment in 2009 when e-book sales were accelerating, Amazon was threatening, and the flailing economy took out big box booksellers like Borders. Today, our shift is far more abrupt, with most physical stores in the United States now closed and in-person browsing on hiatus indefinitely.
Bookstores have traditionally offered physical spaces for private discovery and for community gatherings. Yet, the social distancing required to deal with the novel coronavirus and the economic downturn resulting from the pandemic pose an overwhelming threat to the industry itself. In an interview with Bloomberg Businessweek, Allison K Hill, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association (ABA) notes the significant increase in online sales but adds: “The online sales aren’t very profitable, though, as the cost to manage them is high and the margin is thin. Many independent bookstores will be dependent on government relief, fundraising, and support from their communities to survive.”
Independent booksellers have had the good fortune of being embraced by the ABA, our supportive trade organization where trust and good will have been historical realities. As an industry, we typically engage with our indie bookstore peers and learn from one another. This value, encouraged by the ABA, has been in full force during COVID-19. We’ve all had to be quick learners in order to reinvent our business operations almost overnight. We’ve observed how some of our peers were adapting, and that inspired us to search for strategies that worked for us. So, in week seven of being closed to the public, we have adapted—transforming our brick-and-mortar store into an online and phone transactional business, totally focused on shipping and curbside pickup. Our telephone calls with customers have become meaningful human interactions, taking the place of what both bookseller and customer are now missing. We’ve found ways to create events accessible to people who might ordinarily struggle to attend an in-person event—now everyone is missing that live author event or book club program and these live streamed events have been a workable alternative.
As Gramercy Books looks toward reopening our store later in May, I believe there is a silver lining to this challenging environment. We have found some of our new practices to be worth continuing into our future. We’ve learned new and, in some cases, better ways to serve our customers.
- First, we have mastered online selling. Online commerce had been a tiny portion of Gramercy’s business before mid-March. Only one or two booksellers processed orders through this system and found it cumbersome. Given the huge increase in online orders during this crisis, we are working to make the system more customer friendly and to make online processing more efficient.
- Second, while we always prided ourselves in our engagement with our customers through social media and our subscriber distributed e-newsletter, engagement with our customers has increased in frequency and has become deeper, more personal, and increasingly more interactive through our phone calls and virtual author and book-related events.
- Finally, booksellers have always been hand sellers. We recommend books to our customers in a human way: person to person and what had been face-to-face. Without this direct contact with customers, we talk by phone from 10 am to 5 pm every single day of the week. Our phone begins to ring at exactly 10:00 am. People are looking for recommendations for books for themselves, for puzzles and other family activity items, and educational materials for their children and grandchildren. A Gramercy Books staff member might be on the phone with a customer for twenty minutes as she scours the aisles to find exactly what will fill that need at home. The staff member might take a photo of a product or science kit and send it to her customer to make sure it is what that person is looking for. The interaction, while absent the benefit of a direct in-store conversation, has become an even more meaningful connection between two people. And bookseller and customer have gotten to know each other even better, united in crisis.
So, what we have discovered within ourselves as individual booksellers, and as the full Gramercy Books staff, is that the service we provide our community is invaluable. We take it with even greater seriousness and pride than we ever did before. We have become more efficient in our processes, and more sensitive in our dealings with customers.
And that is the silver lining we have discovered during an otherwise devastating moment in our collective, socially isolated lives.
P.S. A way you can help the industry is to donate to BINC, Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which provides financial relief to booksellers.
P.S.S. Please know that when we do reopen later this month, behind the staff’s facial coverings will be an enthusiastic smile as we welcome you back to Gramercy Books!
Written by Linda Kass
About the author: I began my career as a magazine writer and correspondent for regional and national publications and am now an assistant editor for Narrative, an online literary magazine. My debut novel, Tasa’s Song, was inspired by my mother’s early life in eastern Poland during the Second World War. My second historical novel, A Ritchie Boy, will be out this September. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.