At the best independent bookstores, people convene for clubs, storytimes, author visits and other unique events. COVID-19 didn’t just rob these community cornerstones of customers—it forced them to do the thing they’ve lobbied against for years: selling online. “Our store was always full of people and kids, and there were always events going on,” says Heather Hebert, manager of the family-owned Children’s Book World in Haverford. “We rarely sold a single book on our website.”
This past February, there was no sense of urgency when Hebert became an affiliate of Bookshop.org, which helps independents create websites. Then came the lockdowns in March, and the store was forced to “beef up” its online presence. Jason Hafer’s Reads & Company in Phoenixville has been open barely a year, and he describes his Bookshop.org affiliation as a “godsend,” enabling him to accept pre-orders and sell items like signed books. Over in Wayne, Main Point Books was used to handling just a few online orders a week. “Then we were getting 20 to 30 a day,” says owner Cathy Fiebach.
In most cases, events have also moved online. “Our book group lost some people who weren’t comfortable with technology,” says Fiebach. “But we actually expanded because people were able to invite friends from other states.”
Reads & Company has been holding virtual events every three or four weeks. “They’ve been great, honestly,” Hafer says. “The author lineup that we’ve had is really terrific, and it’s only going to get better in the spring. We really wanted to stay in front of people and provide that access to authors and great programming.”
Though in-person sales are slowly getting back on track, many stores are still seeing elevated online sales as people continue to play it safe. Pickup and curbside service remain common, and some shops have added direct delivery. Reads & Company offers private shopping hours so customers can browse alone. Touchless checkout was also added.
Indeed, browsing is a key benefit at any bookstore. Hebert came up with something she calls “personalized window shopping.” People call ahead to schedule a time to come to a store window stuffed with books tailored to their interests. Children, for one, love it when they see their name on the window. “Their eyes get so big—it’s adorable,” Hebert says. “People reserved nights during Hanukkah for their kids. There have been birthday party windows, baby shower windows.”
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Not every store has made major adjustments. “We’re just too old-fashioned,” says Carol Rauch of Baldwin’s Book Barn in West Chester. “We’re two 80-year-old people who run this place. We’re not into the new technology.”
During the months of lockdown, Baldwin’s customers called and ordered books. Rauch would leave purchases outside the store for pickup. Right now, sales at Baldwin’s are right about where they were last year, despite business being “nothing for three or four months,” says Rauch. “People are at home, and they’re bored. A good book doesn’t have commercials.”
At Main Point Books, Fiebach has actually expanded her customer base. “People have been realizing that if they want to come out of the pandemic shopping and talking about books, they sort of need to support their store,” she says. “Most of them are saying, ‘I just have to make a conscious effort.’”
While Hafer’s early business plans for Reads & Company may have been derailed by the pandemic, he remains optimistic. “We’ve been able to move forward as a young business,” he says. “I think we’ll get to the other side of this.”