Did COVID Bring Certain Death or New Life to Independent Bookstores in the PNW?

After reading a Vox post about how independent bookstores were weathering the pandemic, I wondered how indie bookstores are doing now that we are coming closer to a post-pandemic normal.

In March 2021, Angela Haupt of The Washington Post wrote, “Some independent bookstores prospered during year one of the coronavirus pandemic … Others decided to call it a day. And for others yet, it’s too soon to predict which way the plot might twist.”

It looked grim in March of last year, with the American Booksellers Association (ABA) reporting that 20 percent of independent booksellers across the country were in danger of closing. But in April of this year, the ABA reported that eCommerce has almost doubled compared with April of last year. How is this possible?

Bookstore owners had to think on their feet to come up with creative solutions to stay in business during the lockdown. Michael Keefe, publicist for Annie Bloom’s, said,

As soon as the lockdown was implemented, the volume of online orders increased dramatically, and we had to quickly familiarize the rest of the staff with the process. Another service we added in March of 2020 is local delivery to customers within three miles of the store … And we rapidly transitioned to hosting events online … We hosted our first livestream reading on April 2, 2020. Since then, we’ve hosted dozens more and will continue to do so for the immediately foreseeable future.

Lori Carroll, the new owner of Jan’s Paperbacks, was able to host a Facebook Live with an author in France, something that had not been considered pre-COVID.

Things were also changing for Rachelle Markley, the owner of Crooked House Books and Paper. She said that walk-in traffic dropped off, but luckily she had always been selling online, her biggest presence being on Etsy. During March of last year, she fully expected not to make it when people were “hoarding beans and toilet paper;” she did not think that people were going to open their wallets and start buying “weird collectible books,” yet somehow the pandemic has been really good for online book sales. As Lori put it, “many were able to pivot and do the online thing” because they were closed to the public.

Some booksellers even found unexpected positive outcomes from their COVID experience, such as Annie Bloom’s, who experienced an outpouring of community support. Michael said that their customers know that “by supporting small businesses, neighborhoods remain vital.” Lori said that after going on FOX news and being featured as one of the few bookstores left open to the public, she had an outpouring of support from her community and people just wanted to give her money: “One man told me to close my eyes and put out my hand and he put a one hundred dollar bill in my hand and walked away.”

As I read these stories, I thought about what indie bookstores have in mind moving forward because of this new COVID way of living. Michael said that plans are always in flux and changing, and that “adapting to a pandemic is an extreme example!”

Lori, Rachelle, and Michael all expressed that they missed the face-to-face interactions with their book fan customers. Michael said, “One of the best parts about being a bookseller is talking with customers in person and placing a great book in their hands. Hopefully, those days will soon return!” Rachelle said she missed going to book fairs but enjoyed hosting a dealer invite event, which was a great success. Lori emphasized that every bookstore is different and will each have unique solutions coming out of the COVID shutdown. Rachelle said she was “anticipating huge loss” and is “ridiculously grateful” nobody lost their business and that booksellers here in the PNW are still here. Perhaps Michael summarized it best: “It appears that indie bookstores have, for the most part, weathered the storm.”

Perhaps some may close, but Portlanders know that it would be a blow to their community if their independent bookstores were to shut down for good. Despite the anxiety of the future, COVID has brought innovation and new life to the independent bookstores of the PNW, which have been fittingly described as a tenacious bunch with creativity and passion for what they do.

Dorothy, click your heels three times: PNW indie bookstores are back! Better yet, go to indiebound and find out ways to support your local independent bookseller.

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