A year ago, we didn’t foresee that everything was about to change. We were facing the shadow of an incipient epidemic, resulting in lives lost and much suffering.
When my first daughter, as a toddler, lost her fight with cancer in 1990, a friend gave me Viktor Frankl’s book, Man’s Search for Meaning. A Holocaust survivor, Frankl’s main concern was with the trials of that kind of tragedy. For many, his book became a tribute to hope in the face of unimaginable loss. His seminal work confronts the question of making some measure of meaning out of the worst of life’s situations. In the midst of my own grief, this book helped me through my loss.
Books have been, for so many of us, a salve during this time of uncertainty, isolation, and anxiety. Books bring us joy; they bring us hope. The writing of books, as an act of creation, is an act of hope and optimism. This past year, we have all turned to hope, time and again, to find light amidst the darkness. It is exactly one year to the day—March 23, 2020—when Gramercy Books had to close our physical doors to you. So, today is a day of reflection and looking forward.
I look back at a year that has seemed both long and as brief as a passing cloud. I recall the first week of March of 2020, a whirlwind with three author events, the biggest one off-site and featuring New York Times bestselling author James McBride at the launch of Deacon King Kong. We partnered with King Arts Complex and held the event in their Nicholson Auditorium to accommodate more people than we could fit inside the bookstore. We’d begun hearing about a virus, but the news was vague and mysterious, producing an uncertainty in how to respond. We decided to stick with the March 5th event at King Arts. We spaced out the chairs and the rows, had hand sanitizers at every table, were watchful during the book signing.
Within one week, life was turned upside down. At first, we closed the bookstore completely for four days to explore if we were an essential business. Getting that affirmation, we quickly became a fulfillment center for online and telephone orders. We had boxes of books all over the floor — at the height of this period, we were getting seventy-five to a hundred book orders a day. A rotation of two booksellers at a time worked at Gramercy every day, processing online orders, shipping books out, and handling curbside pickup. We remained closed to the public until May 18th, when our plexiglass barrier at the customer counter was built, our safety protocols developed, Covid information signs displayed, and sanitizers and masks available to the ten to fifteen people we would allow into the store at one time. I cancelled or postponed six months of planned bookstore author events. We began anew, interacting with you most often on the telephone or online (where we refined our web e-commerce process) and through frequent, vibrant e-newsletters that would bring our books and products and programming to you each week.
Our first virtual event was with former UN Ambassador Samantha Power on April 28th. We had planned to feature her memoir, The Education of an Idealist, for our Gramercy Book Club discussion held each month in the store with a facilitator. We decided, since virtual, why don’t we see if Ms. Power might join the book club group in the second half of the program? She did and it was an added element our readers loved. After that program, we knew we could present our events virtually, continuing with live streaming on the Zoom platform and featuring lively conversations with bestselling and nationally acclaimed authors. We even co-presented with a handful of other prominent booksellers across the country for two exciting author events: one with Peter Frampton in conversation with Cameron Crowe, the other with Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation with Neil Gaiman.
After we reopened to the public in May, we saw a pattern with our in-store masked customers. They would check out our display table and recent releases up front, then move quickly to the back of the store where we displayed current bestsellers. They clearly spent less time browsing in the store due to Covid. After the shooting of George Floyd, calls for racial justice spread and the many anti-racism books we carried flew off the shelves. By late summer, we also saw a difference in the types of books customers sought. Escapism books, not tragic stories. They wanted to read about happy endings.
The holiday season began in October as we tried to keep customer density down. We experienced the election of a new president and vice president, and turmoil brought on by challenges to that election. From your feedback, we know how much you appreciate the Gramercy booksellers—how knowledgeable they are, how welcoming and helpful they have been for you. It has been so gratifying to hear that Gramercy Books has been a comfort to you during this pandemic, and during a time suffused with so many racial and political threats. You’ve told us that you feel safe in the store. We are grateful to be your community asset.
Gramercy Books has entered our fifth year in 2021! We are among 2,321 independent bookstores in the United States. On any day, we carry 11,000 different book titles on our shelves, hand selected among the one million books published each year in this country. People are reading more than ever as books provide us with consolation and connection and wisdom. We are already seeing, especially with those who have been vaccinated, more time spent browsing our aisles. We look cautiously forward to in-person gatherings, even hybrid author events, in 2022.
We can only hope that the months ahead will provide a time for healing and unity for our community and our country. The Gramercy team of booksellers has risen to the moment and we thank you for your ongoing support throughout this tumultuous year. We were apart, yes, and, yet, we are together now more than ever.
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, was inspired by my immigrant father's role as a military intelligence office in World War II. I am also the proud owner of Gramercy Books, serving all of central Ohio!
Learn more about me on my personal website.