Can bookstores recover?

The Stranger thinks indie bookstores are ready to take some marketshare back from Amazon. I think that is a lovely, if naive, take. But I am old and calcified in my ways, most of which have been set by a lifetime of futility in the poetry world.

Jenn Risko, publisher and co-founder of Shelf Awareness, the hugely popular indie bookstore newsletter, says local bookstores “have this tiny moment when Amazon has deprioritized books. We have a tiny moment to take over market share. And I hope to god they do.”

Risko says that COVID-19 has been “devastating” to bookstores industry-wide, because stay-at-home orders “hit indies in the places where they best distinguish themselves: offering a place to browse books, a third place to talk about books with people, get recommendations from real live booksellers, and hold events featuring authors—all what their biggest competitor can’t do.”

But now that that biggest competitor, Amazon, has announced that it is deprioritizing book orders so that they can focus on “household staples, medical supplies,” etc., indie bookstores have a chance to reassert themselves as the best and most efficient places to shop for books.

After all, if you have placed an order for a book with Amazon lately, it’s probably taking forever to show up. That has never been the case before.b

But we all know sales will be better once people can come in and browse again, so PW asks, what risks do bookstores take in reopening?

As bookstore owners begin asking people to return, Paz noted, they will face some difficult decisions. “It’s not likely that the business is going to snap back immediately to where it was before the pandemic, and so stores will not need as many employees—and those they do have may well have pared-back schedules. So the question facing owners is who to hire back.”

Here, Paz said, is where owners need to prioritize who is most vital and how many payroll hours the store will be able to cover. “These decisions are never taken lightly, and they are not going to be easy for anyone,” she added.

An even bigger question may be which booksellers are loyal, Paz said. Though the concept of loyalty can be ambiguous, it is perhaps easier to define by omission. “Everyone is anxious and emotions are raw when life is at risk,” she noted, but the key factor is how each employee has responded to the crisis. “Who has showed up? Who worked from home? Who brought ideas to the table? There is going to be a kind of bonding that will have happened among those who found a way to show up and work their way through the crisis. It’s only human nature.”

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