"Though we expect our sales to be low this year, we will make it; we will persevere."
Lone Star Lit wanted to know how our Texas independent bookstores have been weathering the COVID-19 pandemic. With the goal of diverse customer bases and geography in mind, we spoke via email with Galveston Bookshop, Malvern Books in Austin, Front Street Books in Alpine, Burrowing Owl Books in Canyon and Amarillo, and Nowhere Book Shop in San Antonio.
LONE STAR LITERARY LIFE: What do your current operations look like? What does 25% occupancy look like at your store?
Dale LaFleur, owner and general manager, Galveston Bookshop:
We opened the store with limited customers (ten plus staff) on May 1 and followed the State of Texas and County of Galveston Recommended Guidelines For Societal Restoration. So far it has been a slow start; we are doing 40% of our usual business. We are hoping, as Phase 2 and subsequent lifting of restrictions takes place, that business will pick up.
Joe Bratcher, owner, Malvern Books:
At this point, we are closed to the public. We hope to re-open in June. Twenty-five percent occupancy would be a normal day for us as we don't normally have huge crowds at the store. In fact, we set up the store to feel more open than many stores. We plan to remove a number of the chairs because it would be difficult to provide a seating area that would not encourage people to sit together. In order to be responsible we need to limit the number of people in the store and the amount of time they spend there.
Julia Green, manager, Front Street Books: Under the new—hopefully short-lived—reality of Covid-19, we are reduced to one regular employee working in the store, with the owner and another employee working remotely. We also have a couple of temporary part-timers diligently photographing everything in our store and posting book synopses for our store-stock shopping site. We wear masks in the store and allow a maximum of six customers (unless it’s a family group) in for browsing. We require that customers wear masks as well and will provide masks if needed. We also have hand sanitizer available, and Anne greets every customer with a mask and a squirt of the sanitizer so that they can browse. We still have many customers who do not feel comfortable coming in the store, so we also offer curbside delivery and home delivery, as well as shipping. We look to continue this indefinitely.
Elizabeth Jordan, general manager, Nowhere Book Shop: We launched our website back in September 2019 and have been pretty successful selling store merchandise and signed copies of Jenny Lawson's books.
Dallas Bell, owner, Burrowing Owl Books: We originally limited the number of people in our store to ten. Then it was announced that nonessential businesses were to close, so we closed for two weeks. Then word came that even though we were considered nonessential, we fell under a low-risk category, which enabled us to open with restrictions. We restricted even further to only one or two family units at a time.
What innovations and/or special marketing have you tried to address the challenges of being a bookstore right now?
Galveston Bookshop: Before we opened back up, we had phone ordering with curbside pickup.
Malvern Books: We've been fortunate to be able to utilize the work done by the ABA [American Booksellers Association] and become a bookstore affiliate with bookshop.org. This online service allows us to provide recommendations and curated lists of suggestions to our customers and generate sales (with fulfillment by BookShop/Ingram) that support us. Also, like so many others, we have utilized Zoom to hold our book-club meetings. And one of our long-time open-mic groups has continued its meetings using a virtual space, so that has been very nice.
Front Street Books: We have started a weekly online chat show where we interview authors and occasionally discuss the books that we are reading—or trying to read; sometimes the stress gets to be a bit much. We have two book clubs, so far, that meet in Zoom. But we are getting set for what we hope is another couple of decades in the independent bookstore business. We now have an online shopping site connected to our store via Square, and we are on bookshop.org.
Nowhere Book Shop: In December, we launched a subscription club called The Fantastic Strangelings Book Club. We currently have over 2,500 subscribers. The success of that club is keeping us afloat while we wait to open our doors. We also launched a page on bookshop.org and that has been really successful.
Burrowing Owl Books: We advertised book bundles and suggested reads on social media so customers could continue to shop. Puzzles went quickly. People would pick up curbside or by appointment. Also, home delivery was an option. We also allowed customers who made appointments to come and browse.
What are the biggest challenges of operating right now?
Galveston Bookshop: The biggest challenge so far is a lack of customers. As confidence grows in the viability of getting out in public again, hopefully we will be able to safely salvage part of this year’s tourist season.
Malvern Books: Planning for the future is difficult. It's hard to know when we'll feel comfortable hosting an in-person event, so we can't encourage booking ahead with a lot of confidence. Events are a major part of our operations so not having that to work with makes it challenging. Even outside of events, it’s challenging to try to think of all the different elements that are important in keeping our staff and customers safe.
Front Street Books: One of the biggest changes for us has been getting online. Rani Birchfield has been getting us on different remote avenues so we are still accessible, both in getting books to people and having online events and virtual book clubs.
Nowhere Book Shop: Personally, the biggest challenge is balancing trying to get the store ready to open while also managing my kids' homeschool schedule. The other challenge is just the uncertainty of when we will feel ready to open our doors.
Burrowing Owl Books: Our biggest challenge is the lack of foot traffic due to COVID-19 restrictions on our neighboring restaurants. When the restaurants shut down, our foot traffic disappeared. Tourism is at an all-time low in Canyon, which is dependent on business from both WTAMU & Palo Duro Canyon. Thus, typical scheduled events (graduations, camps, ballgames, etc.) were cancelled, which further impacted our small-town community. There were many quiet days on the Square.
In Amarillo, the Summit Center was empty. Shops were closed, restaurants and coffee shops were limited, and the Amarillo community stayed at home. Because many of my staff are retired or have health concerns, they opted to stay home. So my store hours dropped, with only one staff member manning each store for a while. We are still not at 100% and are only open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.
Any stories of unexpected incidents that brought any light/optimism/humor into the current situation?
Galveston Bookshop: We have been so fortunate to have the support of the local community! People have been calling, coming by, and telling us how happy they are that we have re-opened. We used the down time to reset and restock the store so that it would be in top shape for our customers when we re-opened.
Malvern Books: Receiving suggestions from our customers about ways to safely open the store or provide service; praise for our online suggestions at bookshop.org; emails and posts of concern and support; our landlord's generosity; having a former customer who moved away join our book-club meeting because we were on Zoom—all those things have really warmed our hearts.
Burrowing Owl Books: With many sleepless nights wondering how I was going to pay salaries and rent, several things happened. Our hometown bank, Happy State, pushed through the PPP loan on the first round of applications. Then, our Canyon Economic Development Center applied for and procured a grant for the small businesses of Canyon. I have two high-school daughters who quickly learned how to open and close the store and how to man the register. Since School@Home was in full mode two weeks after spring break, this gave them an opportunity to curb their cabin fever while learning the shop. And we were able to open up more fully.
What’s next for the store?
Galveston Bookshop: We are looking forward to working with our community and customers to emerge bigger, better, and stronger on the other side of these difficult times!
Malvern Books: We hope to get back to some degree of "normal" in June, although we are keeping a close eye on the whole situation. And the world of Zoom opens some other possibilities in terms of book clubs and meetings online as well. We may consider adding a virtual component to our events in future. That has been a surprising benefit to this very difficult situation.
Front Street Books: Our next project we’re starting on is a full IndieCommerce site.
Nowhere Book Shop: We're starting to receive our opening inventory and hope to open our doors in the next few weeks if we feel it is safe to do so. We will have limited hours and will offer curbside pickup for local customers.
Burrowing Owl Books: I am so thankful for the community of Canyon and for our civic leaders during this unprecedented time. The support from the community has enabled the Burrowing Owl to keep its doors open even in the darkest of times. And Amarillo is now gradually waking up from the COVID-19 slumber. Numbers are up at both stores. Staff is gradually letting me know that they are ready to get back to work. I expect within the next couple of weeks I'll be at full store hours. Though we expect our sales to be low this year, we will make it; we will persevere.
Galveston Bookshop (est. 1991): three employees; 317 23rd Street, (409) 750-8200, firstname.lastname@example.org; Fleur Fine Books in Port Neches is also owned by Dale LaFleur.
Malvern Books (est. 2013): Joe Bratcher operated a publishing company, Host Publications, for twenty-five years; 613 West 29th Street, Austin, (512) 322-2097, email@example.com
Front Street Books: Julia Green has managed the store for fourteen years; the current owner is Anne Calaway; three to six employees; 121 W. Holland Avenue, Alpine, (432) 837-3360, firstname.lastname@example.org.
Nowhere Book Shop (est. 2019): Elizabeth Jordan is the former CEO of BookPeople in Austin; author Jenny (The Bloggess) Lawson is the owner; three full-time employees; coffee, wine, and beer bar; 5154 Broadway Street, San Antonio.
Burrowing Owl Books: two locations, Amarillo (est. 2019) 7406 SW 34th Avenue, Suite 2B, (806) 367-8961, and Canyon (est. 2017), 419 16th Street, (806) 452-8002, email@example.com; eight part-time employees.