Illustration by Grant Rogers

Browsing at a Distance: Even with local support, bookstores are struggling to break even

Less than six months ago, the experience of walking into a bookstore and browsing the shelves, being reminded of titles you’d been hoping to read, and becoming inspired to read others, was taken for granted by book lovers and booksellers alike. The “third space” a bookstore provided was in and of itself valuable, not just as space for commerce, but for community. Author events and other public programming connected readers to writers, and simply chatting with a bookseller about what was new and notable was a social act. But with the onset of COVID-19, and the mandated March 20 stay-at-home order, Chicago bookstores had to shut their doors to the public. Bookstores have had to adapt, and us with them. Now, with the city cautiously entering Phase Four of reopening, booksellers are still finding their way amid a new reality.

Norma Jean Henderson works at Powell’s Books Chicago, a store full of towering shelves stacked with used books on 57th Street in Hyde Park.

“Our store was always about browsing,” Henderson said. “We’re very old school. We don’t have a computer system where you can just walk in and ask, ‘Hey do you have this book?’ and we can type it in and say ‘no we don’t’ or ‘yes we do.’ We had so many books coming in and out on a daily basis, that for us to be able to put the books instantly online would be impossible. And so for us it’s been huge that the store’s needed to be closed and people can’t come in to browse.” 

Sales in the store have been down at least ninety-five percent since Powell’s had to close its doors, and Henderson is unsure when it will be safe to reopen to the public. The bookstore’s shelves are closely arrayed, and she doubts that they could be moved to make social distancing possible in the store. They haven’t been moved since the store opened fifty years ago, an anniversary that Norma regrets missing. For now, they are relying on online sales.

Powells has a warehouse of more than three million new and used books to draw from, and an infrastructure for shipping that made the transition to online bookselling relatively simple. Other stores, like Hyde Park’s Seminary Co-op, had to rearrange shelves and furniture in order to create a makeshift shipping warehouse to process the increased volume of online orders, which even after a total drop in sales of thirty-eight percent, have gone up eleven-fold since the start of the pandemic. (Full disclosure: I worked at the Seminary Co-op for the past year as a bookseller.) Meanwhile,  Frontline Book Publishing, a Rastafari and Pan-African publisher, has a storefront in Hyde Park but does much of their business as a third-party seller through Amazon. The store had at least three or four weeks in which they sold nothing at all, due to books not being classified as an essential item and thus not able to be shipped per an emergency Amazon policy prioritizing some products (such as cleaning products and shelf-stable food) over others, like books. 

By mid-April that policy was rescinded and now Sekou Sankara, Frontline’s owner, says that thanks to the George Floyd protests and the consequent spike in awareness of racial injustice, there has been a surge of interest in Black literature that he hasn’t seen since the mid-90s. He believes it is especially important to Black youth in the city of Chicago who are trying to learn about themselves and Black culture, and who he has seen begin to frequent his stores. Since May, sales and foot traffic have increased by fifty percent. 

“You have more people taking time to read and to find out who they are. So people want to read James Baldwin; they want to read Toni Morrison; they are trying to find themselves in terms of who they are, and as people, and where they first came from,” Sankara said. “If you want to find yourself as a Black person, as an African born in America, you’re gonna find that in a book about yourself, and the only way you’re gonna find that in a book about yourself you gotta go to a Black bookstore.” 

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Frontline Publishing manages two other stores in addition to the main space in Hyde Park: an Evanston outpost that has been closed indefinitely since December; and Frontline Books and Kultural Emporium, which opened on December 26, 2019, at 63rd and Cottage Grove. On June 14, the Kultural Emporium experienced a break-in and a friend of the store launched a GoFundMe to try and recoup their losses. Both Chicago stores have continued selling books and cultural items such as Black Lives Matter T-shirts while adhering to safety guidelines. 

Bookstores have not only continued serving as resources for education and self-discovery during the pandemic. Ryan Jackson is the managing director at Open Books, a nonprofit bookstore and literacy organization with locations in Pilsen and the West Loop, that works to get books into the hands of kids. 

Before the pandemic, Open Books also worked to get books into classroom libraries, but with schools closed they’ve had to rethink their entire model. Now, as the pandemic progresses, they are shifting their focus to home libraries—in other words, the personal book collections of children. 

“We’re going to end up focusing on home libraries a lot more next year because if people don’t feel safe going to libraries and people don’t feel safe in schools, who knows what they’re going to do in fall with the schools—we just don’t know,” Jackson said. “But we do know that if we can get books into under-resourced communities’ homes, that is an effective, impactful thing for us to do. So we’re going to change our focus to make sure that we can do that.” 

This spring, Open Books started working with CPS meal sites to give books to families when they’re picking up food, and the organization has set up a way for supporters to donate money or buy books directly for kids through their website. Jackson isn’t certain if the extra community attention was because of the pandemic, but so far their Gift of Books campaign has raised $11,000, which helped them buy 2,800 bilingual and culturally relevant books for kids on the South and West Sides.

Still, even with local support, bookstores are struggling to break even. 

Jeff Deutsch, the director of the Seminary Co-op (and sister store 57th Street Books), said that the pandemic has just exposed faults in what has been a largely dysfunctional industry for the past couple of decades. It’s well known among booksellers that bookstores have been struggling, just as all retail has, to compete with Amazon and other online retailers. Bookselling in particular has very thin margins and different constraints when it comes to merchandise. 

“The experience of a bookstore is about having thousands of books to look at, and you find the one that’s right for you, and that’s just a completely different model from every other retailer,” Deutsch said. “So, you can’t scale it. It doesn’t work the way that other retail works—the way you would buy a pallet of socks, or a pallet of umbrellas, you can’t do that with books. 

“Now more than ever,” he said, “publishers and booksellers need to reimagine what they do. Let’s start now having those conversations and let’s see if we can’t answer the question of ‘How would we build this industry if it started today?’” he said. “The urgency is at its peak, and I think it’s only going to get worse. Because we’re not built to recover from a day’s worth of lost sales, much less a week’s worth, and what so many of us are struggling with in our personal lives, whether it’s a missed bill, rent, a mortgage payment, tuition, whatever expenses it is that all of us are struggling with that’s the case for institutions as well, and we’re not built to come back from that.”

Instead, Deutsch has been advocating for a new business model.

“For us, the not-for-profit model makes a lot of sense. We are a cultural institution. We’re interested in alternative forms of funding. We’re interested in changing the conversation within the industry about what bookstores’ roles are. We recognize that buying books used to be the primary role a bookstore would play, i.e., getting a book from a publisher to a reader. Now, it’s much more about the discovery of books and the experience of being in a place created to facilitate browsing, which is its own deeply fulfilling endeavor, and to find ways to support that, recognizing the retail part is broken, and it’s some mix of changing how the industry think about themselves, how readers think about themselves, and in some sense how municipalities think about themselves.”

The idea is not unique. In 2018, the city of San Francisco gave cash grants totaling  $103,000 to local bookstores because of their civic importance as gathering places, and it’s something that Deutsch discussed in an interview with Block Club Chicago as inspiration for and justification of the Seminary Co-op’s new nonprofit model. 

Pilsen Community Books, a new-and-used bookstore on 18th Street, had just reopened as a worker-owned co-op in March, mere weeks before the stay-at-home order was issued. Mandy Medley, one of the owners, spoke to me about the experimental nature of their business and how risky that experiment has turned out to be with COVID-19. 

As a co-op, each worker owns a stake in the business; each earns a base wage, and then based on the amount of their stake, receives a percentage of store profits. With COVID-19 they have been able to break even and pay base wages, but Medley is unsure whether they will turn a profit anytime soon. One of the co-owners has already had to step away due to financial concerns, but the rest of the staff has kept working, invested in their vision for the store.  

Many of the booksellers I spoke to expressed this same sense of civic mission, such as Paragon Book Gallery, an art book retailer located in the Zhou B. Art Center in Bridgeport.  

“Publishing and bookselling is proving to be a labor of love,” the team at Paragon said in a statement. “It has been tough economically, and we have been much more dependent on online book sales, but we remain committed to our mission as a cross-cultural resource, promoting respect and understanding between international communities.” As the city moves cautiously into Phase 4, bookstores are continuing to adapt. Some, such as Open Books or Pilsen Community Books, are even opening their doors, though neither is sure how long that will last if cases of COVID-19 begin to rise again in Chicago. Both are taking precautions: limiting the amount of customers in the store, making hand sanitizer available at the door, installing sneeze guards at registers, sanitizing surfaces regularly, and requiring that customers wear masks. Pilsen Community Books is also instituting a policy where books that are removed from the shelves are put into a box so they can be sanitized by employees before being reshelved. 

Other stores will keep their doors closed for now, either because they can’t physically rearrange their stores to make them safe for both customers and staff, or because—with the added costs of shipping, curbside pickup, delivery, and the staffing that all requires—operating an open storefront as well would be cost prohibitive. Whether or when they’ll reopen, they don’t know. 

Build Coffee in Woodlawn, which sells books and zines in addition to coffee, recently reopened for window pickup of coffee beans, bread, and books on Saturdays during the 61st Street Farmers Market. Co-owner Hannah Nyhart sounded a note of hope. 

“Think about what you want to see on the other side of this, and throw your weight behind that, whether it’s a neighborhood spot you love, or a community, or a movement,” Nyhart said.”The things we protect and sustain right now are going to be what we have to build off of in a year, and nobody can do it alone.”

Correction, July 30: This story has been edited to remove reference to the bookstore of the same name in Portland, Oregon. The two are not affiliated. We have also revised reference to the number of books in the Powell’s warehouse to “more than three million.”

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Guillermo Zapata grew up in Athens, Georgia and attended the University of Chicago. This is their first contribution to the Weekly. They are working on their first book. 

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