Indie Portland Bookstores During COVID-19

In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, many small businesses are facing hardships due to stay-at-home orders and social distancing measures. In Portland, however, small independent bookstores are changing the way they operate in order to stay open. Below is a list of local booksellers that are using their online presence to their advantage during these difficult times:

While this is not an exhaustive list, these are some of the stores that are staying open due to the patronage of their communities.

How are they operating behind closed doors? Most of these stores are now offering free shipping and, in some cases, free delivery or curbside pickups. However, these models are continually changing as the guidelines and procedures for safe transactions continue to be updated. Many of these small stores do not have a robust online catalog, which means that in order to get your books, you must speak directly with an employee in the store who can let you know what they have in stock and make recommendations. In this way—even though they don’t have the backing of larger chains who might have more employees available to ship books—these small independent stores are giving customers the service and care they always do, and making the extra effort to keep their communities safe.

Another thing to consider is how these companies are advertising to their customers during this time. We know people are not supposed to leave their homes unless it is essential, so how are stores getting the word out? Social media has been a key component in this process, beyond just a simple telephone call. As more and more people find themselves stuck at home with little else to do but skim their phones, these stores have utilized their advertising on social media platforms in order to keep the word out about their options. From posting funny quips to sharing ideas for family-friendly reading activities, these stores have been going above and beyond to reach their communities, all while fielding business in a challenging new way. A few of the bookstores have requests on their websites for customers to be patient when it comes to ordering and receiving their books. For a lot of people, that is no problem at all, because there is a lot of time to wait for a book these days.

Their ability to adapt is a testament to the ways independent bookstores go above and beyond to stay in business. During all of this chaos, it’s still important to be able to sit down and read a good book—and as people are stocking up on necessities, they’re starting to consider that as well. So as you consider the small businesses you’re supporting during this time, keep these bookstores in mind.

Brick and Paper: Why Indie Publishers Are Opening Bookstores

A few years ago, it seemed like bookstores were on their way out; with the rise of ebooks and fast shipping speeds, many bookstores seemed to be struggling to hold on. We began to see a rise in community-driven bookstores—local legends who rely on foot traffic in their neighborhoods. In Portland, we see this with Broadway Books, Mother Foucault’s, Annie Bloom’s, and my place of work, Wallace Books. These stores have an avid customer base of people who go out of their way to bring their business to local shops. Bookselling is often very seasonal: most of the stock is sold around the holiday season, creating the majority of the budget for the whole year. Therefore, a lot of bookstores double as other kinds of businesses—such as cafes, rentable community spaces, or bars—in order to offset the seasonality of the store itself.

Along those lines, within the past few years, there has been a rise in independent publishers opening their own brick-and-mortar shops. By combining a bookstore and a publishing house, a company can bring in profits at different times and stay informed about what is selling on the market. Places like Milkweed Editions in Minneapolis, Curbside Splendor in Chicago, and Deep Vellum in Texas have found that having a bookstore in addition to a press can be beneficial to publishing as well. This is partly due to the aforementioned community-driven angle behind local bookstores: by opening a brick-and-mortar store, a publisher can see a rise in community support not only for their shop but also for their publishing house (although this is perhaps contingent on the relationships that the booksellers build with the community).

The bulk of articles that I’ve read on the matter were published in 2016, which was when the trend of crossovers between publishers and bookstores seemed more visible. The catalyst for opening a storefront has been different in each case: maybe a convenient space opened up, or maybe the company had a clear vision of starting a bookstore all along. For publishers like Curbside Splendor, it seems like this mission has expanded into a passion for introducing customers to different independent presses and helping them find books they never knew existed. In an article on Literary Hub, Naomi Huffman, editor in chief of Curbside Splendor, says, “Our focus is on delivering literature to people who don’t know what they’re looking for and maybe don’t even know it exists. Indies are publishing the best literature today, so the opportunity to tell more people about it is very exciting.” With the addition of a bookstore, there is more of a chance to help put books in people’s hands, and the whole small-indie publishing community benefits if the store is focused on selling just those titles.

Booksellers can only be successful if their knowledge of books is strong; they often have insight into what sells and how based on their observations of the customer’s selection process in the store. By founding bookstores around indie presses, booksellers are able to specialize in a certain type of book. With a knowledgeable staff, they can sell more previously unknown books by recommendation.

While this is not a viable option for every independent press out there, opening a bookstore has proven to be beneficial for a handful of publishers. Bookstores can help build support for a writer or a press because these establishments are often an important part of the community.

Independent Bookstore Day Is Back!

Bookstores in Portland and beyond will celebrate the second Independent Bookstore Day (IBD) on Saturday, April 30, with special events and nifty literary merchandise. The day highlights a growing momentum of support among readers and writers for independent booksellers all over the country. And there’s no bigger fan than Portland writer Ruth Tenzer Feldman, author of Blue Thread, The Ninth Day, and the forthcoming Seven Stitches.

“My favorite thing about indie bookstores is that they are indie,” she said. “Duh! It’s that simple. Each bookstore has its own personality, its own responsiveness to the community it serves. As a participant in the Crazy Eights author tours, I’ve visited an eclectic bunch of indie bookstores across Oregon, some of which I wouldn’t have managed to see on my own. Each was a delight. Unpredictable, quirky, and yet offering the same welcome to readers and writers that is the essence of indie.”

I asked Feldman about the role indie bookstores fill in today’s marketplace. “What comes to mind here is biological diversity,” she said. “An odd analogy, I suppose, but the way I see it, indie bookstores add vigor to the gene pool.” By accommodating local needs, she says, bookstore owners help to “expand the possibilities that a literate and literary community will thrive.”

Bestselling author Lauren Groff (Fates and Furies) would agree. As this year’s Independent Bookstore Day Author Ambassador, she believes IBD “joyously celebrates the literary ecosystem and shows how symbiotic the relationship is between readers, writers, and bookstores, and how essential they all are in sustaining the contemporary written word.”

Participating bookstores in the Portland area—Annie Bloom’s Books, Broadway Books, and Jan’s Paperbacks—will feature these and other items made just for the event:

  • The Care & Feeding of an Independent Bookstore by Ann Patchett, signed by the author
  • Anthony Bourdain’s “Perfect Burger” print, signed by the author
  • Third edition of the Bad Citizen stencil series, with a quote by Fran Lebowitz: “Think before you speak. Read before you think.”
  • Set of two 100 percent cotton literary tea towels
  • Bookstore cats zippered pouch
  • A Neil Gaiman coloring book
  • Raymie Nightingale, signed by Newbery Award-winner Kate DiCamillo
  • Draw Me! with step-by-step instructions on how to draw Mo Willem’s Pigeon, Curious George, and Fly Guy

Find this fascinating stuff and more at these participating bookstores:

Annie Bloom’s Books, 7834 SW Capitol Hwy., Portland, OR 97219

Broadway Books, 1714 NE Broadway St., Portland, OR 97232

Jan’s Paperbacks, 18095 SW Tualatin Valley Hwy., Aloha, OR 97003

Sold yet? A final word from Feldman should get you out the door: “Indie bookstores encourage and inspire me. I’m not in this crazy business alone.”

National Independent Bookstore Day is sponsored in part by Penguin Random House, Ingram, and The American Booksellers Association. IBD is produced by Samantha Schoech in partnership with the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association (NCIBA). Click here for more information.