How Bookstores are Innovating Due to Covid-19

Independent bookstores had their fair share of hurdles before coronavirus, but thanks to the quote-unquote “new normal” of Covid-19 and social distancing, indie booksellers have had to dramatically reimagine their businesses.

When Seattle’s “Shelter in Place” order went into effect on March 24, Third Place Books had to close their physical stores, temporarily furlough some staff (with healthcare maintained), and essentially “learn how to run a bookstore remotely overnight,” said events manager Sam Kaas.

“It was like opening a whole new business,” he said. After six weeks of operating remotely, the store was able to offer curbside pickup. “That has been like opening another totally new business,” said Kaas. “We’ve fundamentally altered most of the basic framework of our jobs the past two months.”

Virtual events have been one of the most widespread transformations, with booksellers having to work creatively — and quickly — to transition to online programming.

Third Place Books experimented with multiple platforms (Facebook Live, Instagram, Zoom and Webinar) and are now trying Crowdcast. Initially their event attendance was higher than average (70-80 online, vs. 20 in-store) while sales were lower. Over time, Kaas says attendance has “settled into a more normal pattern” and sales have increased, with variation from event to event.

Shakespeare & Co has also transitioned to virtual programming. In addition to book launches and author events, they are hosting virtual creative writing workshops, online book clubs with author participation, and partnered events with other authors and organizations. Françoise Brodsky, Director of Community Outreach and Events, said that Zoom has been their preferred platform. Sales have varied, but “participation has increased, because it is not linked geographically anymore,” Brodsky said.

Doloris Vest at Book No Further said their store has also been working on virtual programming via Zoom. Although attendance fluctuates, their event pre-sales have been comparable to in-store events. Book No Further is trying other new strategies as well, such as offering small-group browsing and browsing-by-appointment, and improving store layout to ensure everything is clean, sales-friendly and easily accessible.

Some changes have been surprisingly positive. “We did more online sales in the first two months of the shut down than we had done in the previous/first eight months of our website,” Vest said.
Kaas said that the pandemic has presented new challenges, and also fresh innovations. “While booksellers have to be nimble every day to survive, our industry is also one where it’s easy to get into a rut, and to stick with what works until we’re forced to think of something new. This has forced us to think outside the box, which is crucial.”

All three bookstores confirmed that they intend to host virtual programming for the long-term. For many, pre-pandemic-style (dare we say “normal?”) business operations are not expected to resume before 2021. Even then, the book industry is writing a new chapter. It’s very likely that some changes — such as “hybrid” schedules of virtual and in-person events — are here to stay.