Independent booksellers survive the pandemic


It’s a few minutes before 10 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in June and a customer is already in the parking lot of The Book Worm, a second-hand bookstore in Little Rock.

“Guess it’s time to open up,” says store owner and sole employee Kent Byers as he unlocks the store’s front door at 6801 W 12th St. A woman walks in with a bag of books. ‘she wants to trade or sell. She leaves it at the counter for Byers to sort through as she walks to the back of the store to shop.

The phone starts ringing as two more customers arrive. A caller comes in and has 200 books to bring to the store.

“I told you,” Byers says as the phone rings again. “There are a lot of people here.

Byers, who bought the store in 2007 while in Cabot and then moved to Little Rock in 2013, closed for April 2020, as the coronavirus spread. On May 1, it reopened and “business was fantastic,” he says.

With libraries closed and Barnes & Noble allowing only a few customers at a time, book lovers were looking for options and found his store, Byers speculates.

The recovery continued. “I’ll do better this year than I did last year,” he says.

Nationally, independent booksellers have weathered the pandemic quite well.

At the end of May, the Associated Press reported that the membership of the American Booksellers Association had increased from 1,635 to 1,701 since May 2020. And while there was a fear of the worst-case scenario that hundreds of stores would do bankruptcy, the group recorded only 14 closings. this year and over 70 last year.

“It’s fair to say it could have been a lot, a lot worse,” association executive director Allison K. Hill told writer AP Hillel Italy. She described the independent community as “bruised” but standing.

There are 18 Arkansas stores listed on the Booksellers Association website.

Gallery: Local bookstores

Arkansas independent booksellers, like their national counterparts, have adapted on the fly as the pandemic has become a grim and constant presence. Store owners offered pickup and delivery services, spaced displays to better accommodate physical distance, and switched to online platforms for special events such as author appearances.

At Dog Ear Books in Russellville, co-owner Emily Young said business fell when the store closed to in-store shoppers in April of last year and returned to pickup, delivery and sale in line.

“It slowed down a lot when we had to shut down,” Young wrote in an email, “but we’ve had loyal customers reaching out to us to make sure we keep the lights on, so to speak. $ 200, pick some good books for me and I’ll come get them. Another just donated $ 100 calling us a “real Russellville church”. Although business has been slow, our customers have grown a lot. “

It didn’t help matters that during the shutdown the store moved from 301 W. Main St. to its current address at 110 Commerce St., a move that Young describes as “80% due to the pandemic, 20. % due to situations beyond our control. “

The past few months have been “a slow and steady increase in the return to normalcy,” said Young, who opened the Dog Ear with her mother, Pat Young, in 2016 after Hastings Books, Music & Video closed her store in Russellville. The store even added two employees and has five employees.

“The first and second draws of [Paycheck Protection Program] The loan saved us, “she says.” It helped keep our employees paid and kept our bills from being overdue. “

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The early days of the pandemic called for some tough choices, says Garbo Hearne, owner of Pyramid Art, Books & Custom Framing in Little Rock.

“We had to make a decision, whether we were going to run and stay home and just do it online, or were we going to take care of our people and realize the essential nature of our business.”

She decided to keep the doors open, she said. Hours were shortened and procedures were put in place to regulate the number of people in the store, she said.

The store has one full-time employee and up to three part-time employees.

“We haven’t had any covid incidents on staff,” Hearne said. “Our staff were very vigilant in showing up to work and making things happen.”

Pyramid, founded as a print gallery in 1988 and located at 1001 Wright Ave. since 2010, started selling books in 1990 and specializes in black authors and subjects. Following the protests against the death of George Floyd on May 25, 2020 while in custody in Minneapolis, readers searched for books by black writers, Hearne says.

“There seemed to be a great deal of interest in black bookstores in the United States due to the social justice issues, so our online activity increased. People were trying to figure it out and started reading about it.”

Among the most popular titles during the pandemic, she said, were National Book Award winner “Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America,” by Ibram X. Kendi, “Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents “by Isabel Wilkerson and Ta-Nehisi Coates” “Between the world and me.”

“These were standards that we were shipping daily,” says Hearne.

Staying open during the pandemic has taught him and his staff that “you have to be versatile,” Hearne says. “You have to pivot. I have learned that we are essential. A bookstore is essential, as are the arts. When things aren’t going well, people tend to withdraw into themselves and they appreciate the art and the ability to read a book. “

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Lia Lent, along with Tom McGowan and Lynne Phillips, became co-owner of longtime independent Little Rock WordsWorth Bookstore in 2017.

The store, located at 5920 R St., has nine part-time employees. It closed to in-store customers for about eight weeks at the start of the pandemic, Lent says, limiting online sales, calls, deliveries and curbside pickups.

“We still had staff in the store, filling orders,” she says. Navigation by appointment was also limited.

Before reopening to customers in person, the layout of the 2,400 square foot store was reconfigured.

“We took out libraries, we opened everything up so that there were wide traffic lanes,” Lent explains, adding that the store’s air filtration system has also been updated.

Like many industries, publishing faced supply chain issues in 2020.

“The books weren’t printed fast enough, especially the backlist books,” Lent says. “And a lot of authors who published books in the fall were pushed back into the spring because they just couldn’t get them printed on time.”

And speaking of supply and demand, puzzles came out of the store, she says, but manufacturers and suppliers couldn’t keep up and getting new inventory was a challenge.

The warehouses that the store relies on to get books to them quickly were understaffed, which meant titles did not get to the shelves as quickly.

Customers, however, “really stepped up and bought books,” Lent says. “We have a very solid clientele and we have really stayed open thanks to them.

“And we’ve had new customers. We’re so grateful to the people who looked around and said, ‘OK, I’m going to transfer my dollars from the big boys to businesses in our local community. “”

The store was also a place of interaction for people isolated during the pandemic.

“We noticed that people would call to order a book and then they wanted to talk, or they would come to the store just to talk. Part of what we do is be part of that connection.”

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Blytheville Book Company is the current incarnation of That Bookstore in Blytheville, the legendary store opened in 1976 at 316 W. Main St., by Mary Gay Shipley.

Shipley sold the store in 2012. After some ownership changes, Erin Carrington and her husband Andrew bought it and reopened at 429 W. Main St. in November 2018.

“We had a little over a year under our belt and kind of hit our stride when the pandemic hit,” said Erin Carrington.

The store, which also sells coffee, beer, wine and record albums, has three to four full-time and part-time employees.

“We haven’t suspended operations,” Carrington said. “It was with a reduced staff and we closed our coffee bar area. The environment we had at the store changed. It could no longer be a meeting place for people. It was really just a store of detail at that time. “

The cafe has reopened, although community activities such as children’s story time and craft events are still on hold, Carrington said.

“We try to move slowly and not rush for the safety of our staff and the community.”

The store closed briefly and only operated by appointment in May after a staff member contracted the virus.

“The fact that this is happening so recently, it shows that it is still a threat to our operation,” Carrington said.

After just making its mark with the new store, covid-19 certainly threw a wrench into the Carrington’s plans, but there are some valuable lessons to be learned.

“You have to be flexible and resilient. We had sort of solved all the issues and figured out how we were going to run the store. We had author signatures lined up… then the virus hit. It was disappointing, but we got over it. Pretty well maintained and managed to have a decent year. It was comparable to our first year opening. It was unfortunate timing, but I think we handled it as well as possible. “

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Elizabeth Vaughn has owned Jefferson Street Books in downtown El Dorado since 1999.

“We were closed for part of March and April 2020,” she says of the first months of the pandemic. “We reopened in June, but it’s just now that we’re starting to see a lot of our older customers come out.”

There was another employee at the store, but she retired during the pandemic and now Vaughn is solo.

The biggest change she has made since the pandemic has been to reduce the hours from Monday to Saturday to Monday to Friday, she says.

Seeing the evolution of the pandemic from a retail perspective has been interesting, she says.

“At first, everyone was masked. I had hand sanitizer and people used it a lot, but you can see the trigger. People aren’t that masked.”

She has also noticed more tourists passing by the store in recent months.

“There were days when it was very surprising. I saw a lot of people traveling, either people who just wanted to go out, or people who can now visit family who live nearby. C ‘is definitely taken back. “

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