Diary of a Bookseller

Bookselling in Self-Isolation

Lucky number thirteen today, the day that marks the start of my fourth week in self-isolation, and what an interesting time the last three weeks have been.

Diary of a Bookseller #13

As a person with asthma, I’ve been self-isolating since before our Pennsylvania governor first encouraged non-essential businesses to close on March 13 (it was the weirdest Friday the 13th ever.) While the store remained open for the weekend (and was subsequently dragged on social media) to offer books to our customers pre-stay-at-home-order, and by Monday, we’d shuttered our doors to the public for the foreseeable future.

What remained to be determined, was what to do in the meantime to support our customers book needs, and generate whatever revenue we could for the store so that this forced closure wouldn’t kill us. We’ve been a bookstore in the greater Philadelphia area just shy of 30 years, and we’ll be darned if this virus kills the business.

While the owner was able to pay us for the first initial week we were closed, it was clear that wasn’t going to last. Two weeks was an optimistic closure and we felt certain it would be extended until mid-April at least. This week started with a mandatory thirty day closure and yesterday I officially filed for unemployment.

As the manager of the store, I’m lucky to still have a few hours (thank you Pennsylvania for still allowing unemployment benefits for me) to keep me busy during the day, so what is it I’ve been doing? How does one manage a bookstore from the comfort of their own home?

Online Bookselling

Web orders! We’re so lucky to have a great number of our regular customers ask us how they could support us during this unique time in American history (as a person with a history degree, I cannot ignore the fact that I’m living through a momentous event in human history), and we were able to work out a way to still fulfill orders without having to go into the store but sending them directly to our warehouse for direct-to-home fulfillment.

When we first started doing this two days after we closed (the longest two days ever it seemed), I figured we’d get a handful of orders per day. This morning we passed order number 300! While this isn’t on par with the business we’d be doing in person if people could browse and read our blurbs, and enjoy the ambiance of the wine bar, it’s far more than we could have possibly expected.

The downside, the warehouse fulfills web orders for all indie bookstores on the East Coast and was not entirely sure what to expect when the massive influx of direct-to-home orders started rolling in. Which meant I, also now our primary customer service contact, had many, many emails to answer from customers anxiously awaiting their books! Things are now, though, rolling along smoothly there. If only I could get the USPS to scan all their items to update their tracking information, and then I’d really be worry-free!

Leveraging My Blogging Knowledge

While I’m far from an expert blogger, I’ve taken what I’ve learned in the three years I’ve been blogging on here (six years overall) and put it to use for the store! Two weeks ago we launched our bookstore blog (which I’ve wanted to do for quite some time actually) and we’ve been getting an average of thirty views per day from the get go. We’ve included features from our local authors, book reviews, book lists (all linked to a curated list here), and more, all with direct links to our website where we’re offering free USPS media mail shipping (yes, this part is a shameless plug, we’re the Towne Book Center and you can find our website here.)

Virtual Events

Last night, I did some research watching my mom’s local indie bookstore, Midtown Scholar, host one of my favorite nonfiction authors, Erik Larson. While we don’t have too many April authors lined up, we have bestselling authors on deck for May and while I would love to be able to host them in person, we might have to go virtual and I want to make sure I know the best way to do so.

The other side of events, are the meetings of our twelve book clubs. So many of our book club members look forward to their monthly meeting at the store and it’s a decent source of revenue to us and we always offer our book club selections at a discount. To not be able to have those sales in person, or to be able to have people browse the book club options, has hurt.

Thank goodness for Zoom and other video meeting apps! We’ve had two book clubs meet successfully via Zoom and hope to replicate that success with some of our other book clubs this month! Up next will be trying to do virtual game nights and story times. The downside with story times is that no one wants to be on camera! So our YouTube channel that we launched at the same time as the blog, has sat mostly empty, with the exception of a thank you video to our customers from yours truly.

That’s what digital bookselling looks like for a mid-side indie bookstore – most of us are filling web orders, so if you have a store near you, I encourage you to place orders for books as you are able (and you’ll probably get them quicker than from the online retailer who has de-prioritized books these days) – I know I have a few more orders to place with my favorite other indies, from the one in my own town, Reads and Company, to my hometown indie, Whistlestop Bookshop, and there are many more I could list. I encourage you to do what you can to keep them around once the dust settles on the other side of this pandemic.

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