“The irony of all this is that what makes bookstores so potent, our ability to be community gathering places, has become our biggest liability,” he said.
The public health crisis and the resulting economic fallout have hit at a moment of relative calm and strength for the industry, after a period in which independent stores across the country had rebounded, print sales had stabilized and digital audiobook sales had soared. In 2019, total sales across all categories rose 1.8 percent from 2018, reaching $14.8 billion, according to the Association of American Publishers.
Now, those gains are likely to be erased as booksellers confront a bleak and uncertain economic future.
A growing number of independent booksellers have responded to the public health crisis by closing their stores and sending employees home. On Monday, the Strand bookstore announced that it was closing its flagship store in Manhattan and its kiosks elsewhere around the city. Emily Powell, the owner and chief executive of Powell’s Books in Portland, Ore., announced that Powell’s was closing all five of its locations through at least March 31. Newtonville Books in Newton, Mass., Wild Rumpus in Minneapolis and Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill., have also closed temporarily.
Other bookstores, which often serve as community hubs as well as businesses, are trying to offset falling foot traffic by offering customers free delivery or curbside pickup. The novelist Ann Patchett, a co-owner of Parnassus Books in Nashville, Tenn., said her store is offering curbside book delivery and free shipping for orders over $50, and is putting together video book recommendations for its website. “It does seem like a great time to get some reading done,” Ms. Patchett said.
The Booksmith in San Francisco is also offering free local shipping, and has seen a rise in online sales. “Fulfilling those orders has turned into a constant, full-time, all-day thing for now,” said Camden Avery, the store’s manager.
The American Booksellers Association said it has been lobbying publishers to support independent stores by offering discounts, free shipping to customers and a removal of the cap on returns of unsold titles, among other measures. Other groups have been raising money to donate to hard-hit independent stores. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which gives financial support to independent stores, released a statement offering potential assistance to stores that have been impacted by the epidemic and are unable to pay their rent or utilities bills as a result of lost sales.