Next chapter: COVID-19 and Oregon’s indie bookstores
How sellers adapted, and what changes they may carry forward as the state reopens
by: Hannah Ray Lambert Posted:
CLACKAMAS COUNTY, Ore. (KOIN) — In mid-March, independent bookstores across the country closed their doors indefinitely in response to the coronavirus pandemic. Now two months later, restrictions are easing in Oregon, but most booksellers are holding off on reopening.
“We just want to do it in a way that’s safe for everyone, and safe for our business,” said Emily Powell, owner and CEO of Powell’s Books. The in store browsing process relies on people being able to relax, so management is grappling with ways to make that possible.
Oregon’s most famous independent bookstore felt the effects of the coronavirus pandemic almost immediately. Around March 17, Powell said the company had to lay off most of its 500 employees, retaining a staff of about 50. When it became clear that they could sustain some online business, the company began to hire some employees back. Now, they’re back up to about 200, Powell told KOIN 6 News. The store is getting ready to add curbside service. Sales fluctuate vastly from day to day, but she said the store is seeing approximately one quarter of usual sale levels.
It’s a similar story for establishments that don’t have an international following.
Third Street Books in McMinnville is seeing sales down 30-40% from this time last year, owner Sylla McClellan said.
Being forced to close their doors removes one of the main advantages indie bookstores have over their corporate counterparts: a warm, inviting atmosphere in which you feel like you’re buying books from a friend, not just a business.
“This is not spiritually sustainable for an indie bookseller,” Executive Director of the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association (PNBA) Brian Juenemann said. “Connecting with a customer … that’s what they live for.”
With that in-person connection shut off, booksellers scrambled to find alternatives. Some already had online ordering capabilities, but others had to act fast and join the digital age.
McClellan said her website did not get a lot of traffic pre-pandemic.
“It was something I was grateful to have as an option but not something I put a ton of effort into, mostly because we’re a browsing store and most people in our community that shopped from our website always clicked on the pick up in store option anyway,” she said. That has completely reversed now.
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