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‘We’re just doing our best to adapt’: Emma Straub on running an indie bookstore amid coronavirus

The best-selling author and co-owner of Books Are Magic discusses how her store is weathering the crisis while supporting writers, staff, and other bookstores.

‘We’re just doing our best to adapt’: Emma Straub on running an indie bookstore amid coronavirus
[Photo: Bruce Dixon/Unsplash]

For years, independent bookstores fought to stay in business in the face of big box stores and Amazon’s unstoppable growth. Now, they find themselves up against the coronavirus pandemic, which has forced bookstores across the country to close their doors and take their business online.

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For some bookstores, the effects have been almost immediate: McNally Jackson, which has multiple locations across New York, temporarily shut down its stores and let go of most employees in one fell swoop. Even iconic bookstores such as the Strand and Powell’s in Portland laid off nearly all their employees. (Powell’s has since hired back a handful of workers to fill online orders.) All this comes when independent bookstores have seen something of a resurgence, as readers have sought out events and community and e-book sales have stagnated.

The coronavirus crisis has left many bookstores reliant on online sales and virtual events to keep their businesses afloat. But not all indie stores were in a position to adapt quickly, either because they didn’t sell online or couldn’t ship books out of their stores due to shelter-in-place orders.

Hundreds of independent bookstores have turned to an online platform called Bookshop, which launched in January to help booksellers compete with Amazon. Bookstores that aren’t set up to sell online can easily open a virtual storefront via Bookshop without the hassle of tracking inventory or shipping orders; from there, Bookshop takes care of fulfillment and gives booksellers a 30% cut of the sale. (At the moment, Bookshop has waived its 5% commission fee.) Bookshop also presents an alternative to Amazon’s affiliate link program, and with a commission of 10%—more than twice what Amazon offers.

“The coronavirus is a disaster, absolutely,” says Andy Hunter, the founder and CEO of Bookshop. “But what it essentially did was just accelerate a process that was already going to happen, where independent bookstores had to start selling more books online. So now they’re all learning how to sell books online very quickly. I pray that they all survive this. At the end of it, they will hopefully be better at retaining their customers.”

The day before we spoke, Hunter told me, Bookshop had clocked more than $142,000 in sales. Bookshop now has about 425 stores, with more than 180 additions in just the last few weeks. And even bookstores that have their own online stores are turning to Bookshop as a way to expand their audience and share staff picks.

One such bookstore is Books are Magic in Brooklyn. I spoke with Emma Straub, the bestselling author and co-owner of Books Are Magic, about how her store is weathering the coronavirus crisis and trying to support writers and bookstores alike.

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Fast Company: You started Books Are Magic in 2017, after your local bookstore shut down. How has the store been doing?

Emma Straub: The store is doing amazingly well. We started it with absolutely not a drop of business experience. My husband is the one who’s responsible for really running the store on a day-to-day basis, and he has learned how to do it magnificently.

People know that books are obviously the number one thing you need, other than food, in any time, but certainly in a time of crisis.”

What’s incredible is that in the last few weeks, since all this has happened and we’ve been closed to browsing and just shipping, people have been amazingly supportive and have been placing orders just all day and all night. People are not panic shopping—but comfort shopping. People know that books are obviously the number one thing you need, other than food, in any time, but certainly in a time of crisis. People need books to entertain them and to distract them and to help them understand the world around them. So we are still, in fact, quite busy.

FC: The social distancing measures seemed to come in waves, particularly in New York City, where many small businesses were trying to take the necessary precautions without shutting down altogether. When did you first realize you had to make a change?

ES: The first week of March, we had two big events. We had tons of hand sanitizer, and lots of people who bought tickets said, ‘I’m not feeling totally well, so I’m not going to come.’ But it still felt like people were being conscientious and washing their hands; it didn’t seem urgent. And then, that Wednesday we had Maira Kalman in the store. It was sort of the perfect ending. It was for her illustrated edition of the autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, so it’s not a New York story the way some of hers are. But I just think of her as the ultimate New Yorker and someone who sort of breathes art and love and real New York City pride, and so it felt really meaningful to have her in the store and then to say okay, we just can’t have people coming in here anymore.

Starting the following Monday, all of our office staff started working from home. And then maybe a few days later, we told our whole staff if you don’t feel comfortable, just stay home; we’ll pay you your regular hours.

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FC: Like other bookstores, Books Are Magic continued doing book pickups for a while. With the official shelter in place order came a few weeks ago, it felt like things changed overnight. What did you do then?

ES: After maybe about a week of curbside pickups, it started to feel like too much. There were too many people milling around, and sometimes people would just come in anyway. So it actually felt good to stop that. I think that the in-between zone felt the worst.

FC: What has the impact been for you thus far? Have you been able to retain your staff?

ES: We haven’t laid anyone off. We’ve talked a lot about expanding and the possibility of opening other stores, but right now we’re feeling really grateful that we’re as small as we are. We don’t have that many employees. We are a very busy, very high-volume, very small operation.

The only realistic outlook any small business can have right now is just understanding that things will continue to change and to just be prepared for that.”

The only realistic outlook any small business can have right now is just understanding that things will continue to change and to just be prepared for that. Obviously we don’t know how long each phase of this is going to last. . . . We just want to make sure that we can still be there for everyone. I definitely feel an incredible amount of support from our neighborhood, from our community, from Brooklyn, from the literary universe. We’ve been getting orders from across the country, and it’s really a wonderful feeling.

FC: Books Are Magic has always had a lot of programming. I know you’ve been doing story times via Instagram, for example, since closing your doors. What else are you doing virtually during this time?

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ES: We’ve shifted a good number of our events onto Zoom, and those have actually been going really well. The attendance has been, I would say, approximately what the attendance would be in the store. We had more than 100 people the other night. People are showing up in whatever ways they can. We made a T-shirt that says “Stay Safe, Read Books,” and we’re donating half the proceeds of that to BINC, which is the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, and the other half to making sure our employees are getting paid.

We’re going to start a virtual book club. We’re doing story times, as you mentioned. This month is Poetry Month, so we started a poetry recitation initiative. We’re asking people who know poems by heart to record them. I asked some author friends to do it: Emily Mandel, Kevin Wilson, Ann Patchett—and my six-year-old, River. We’re just trying to keep everybody connected with us and with each other.

Obviously we need to keep paying our bills and keep paying our staff, but right now the most important thing to me is making sure that the community that we’ve built still feels our presence and still feels like they can come to us for their bookish needs. Right now, [my husband and I] are actually in our car, driving around Brooklyn dropping off little care packages for some of our friends—dropping off some books and some notes and some buttons that we made. We all need little moments of joy.

FC: For many authors, yourself included, this pandemic has hit on the cusp of a book launch, throwing a wrench in their plans for book promotion. Some publishers have pushed out book releases. Are you doing anything to offer support to authors whose books are coming out in the midst of this crisis?

ES: My new book comes out on May 5. This definitely isn’t what I imagined the world would be like. But I still feel pretty lucky because I’ve sold a lot of books before. My publisher is really behind me. Even though the numbers are going to be different than they would be for everyone, I feel like I at least have a chance of still selling some books. But I feel really, really sad for all the people who are just publishing their debut novels into this. We’ve got various ideas we’re cooking up for how to support as many authors as we possibly can and to help them feel properly celebrated. It’s important to celebrate, too, in the midst of this.

We’re also trying out doing some things in collaboration with other bookstores. There’s an independent bookstore in Pittsburgh called White Whale, and we co-hosted an event for a YA author named Siobhan Vivian who lives in Pittsburgh. White Whale is her local [bookstore], so she can sign books there, but we have a bigger platform. So we’re trying to signal boost as much as we can. Right now especially, we know it’s so not just about our little business. We care about all the bookstores. We want everybody to get through this. So we’re working on it.

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FC: You’re a supporter of Bookshop, where you have a page sharing monthly staff picks. Books Are Magic was already in a position to sell online, but for a number of bookstores, Bookshop is offering an avenue to do that. What’s the value in a service like that for independent bookstores?

ES: It’s a totally different skillset. You need a person who knows how to do that, first of all, and you need someone in your store who can devote time to that. It really is just a whole other bag of bananas. At many bookstores—Three Lives & Company, for example, which is one of the very best bookstores in New York City—part of the charm has always been that they are technology resistant. But right now, you can’t be. And so they’ve started selling things online or taking online orders.

I think Bookshop is a terrific resource for bookstores who want to be able to sell online but haven’t quite figured out how to do that. Bookshop makes it really, really easy for bookstores to sign up and to upload their staff picks or book lists of various kinds, and then Bookshop takes care of everything else. And what’s also really nice about Bookshop is that they are doing these affiliate links. God, if I get another email from an author—me, personally, as a human in the world who also happens to own an independent bookstore—telling me to buy their book at Amazon . . . You’d be amazed at how often that happens, and how often that person gets put on a list in my head.

FC: This has always been a precarious business, even without an unprecedented global pandemic. How do you think bookstores will come out of this?

ES: We’re taking it one pay period at a time. My heart really goes out to the restaurants and bars. We have so many friends who own restaurants and bars, and that seems like a much scarier business to me than books. At least books don’t go bad. Even if we did have to totally shut down and not ship out anything, and just totally walk away for a month or two—all the books inside the store would be totally okay when we opened. That’s something I definitely feel grateful for at the moment.

FC: Are there any lessons you’re going to take away from this?

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ES: To have a bunker filled with cash and seltzer water and chickpeas? I don’t know!

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About the author

Pavithra Mohan is an assistant editor for Fast Company Digital. Her writing has previously been featured in Gizmodo and Popular Science magazine.

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