Independent bookstores, caught between trying to stay afloat amid the COVID-19 pandemic and providing the community with literary material, believe in the importance of reading during uncertain times.
“People are stuck in their houses and reading has been and always will be a way to go to another land, another time, another world,” said Anne Holman, co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop. “You can have a love affair, you can talk to a robot, you can visit Tahiti — all the things you can’t do really in person right now you can do through a book.”
It’s a sentiment echoed among many of Utah’s independent bookshop owners — reading provides escape, improves mental health, eases desperation, inspires new hobbies and broadens perspectives.
But as the COVID-19 pandemic has rolled across the state bringing with it layoffs, shutting down businesses, limiting operations, and threatening Utahns’ health, independent bookstores are trying to swiftly adapt to constraints to remain in business.
This has meant finding alternate ways to serve customers, connect with the community, and earn revenue while following precautions to keep employees and the public safe.
Many are taking innovative approaches to connect with other book lovers via virtual storytelling and offering discounts in hopes of increasing sales, which owners say are significantly down.
At many bookstores, employees, clad in masks and protective gloves, are offering curbside pickup. Others are hand delivering books to customers in the community. Some stores that used to rely largely on purchases from people perusing shelves inside of the store have been converted into shipping centers for solely online orders.
Specific procedures vary from shop to shop, but all are emphasizing that reading can be a source of solace during this turbulent time.
The King’s English Bookshop
Anne Holman, co-owner of The King’s English Bookshop, said the Salt Lake City store has had to significantly shift its business model after it closed its doors to the public.
“We’ve become a big warehouse, literally fulfilling orders, printing shipping labels, sending books even if they are just down the street,” Holman said, adding that staff have tried hard to still get books to people through online orders because books are more important now than ever.
The store is offering virtual storytimes at 11 a.m. for children every day as well as chapter book readings for adults at 2 p.m.
Holman noted there’s been a swell of public support and that it’s been fun to see all of the various locations that online orders have come from.
“We are in this for the long haul. I don’t think any of us know how long this is going to take or when it’s going to end, so the books will keep coming and we will keep shipping,” Holman said. “We need to keep hearing from everybody that they love to read and they want to keep buying books from us.”
Ken Sanders Rare Books
Ken Sanders, owner of Ken Sanders Rare Books, is trying to find creative ways to give back to the community while taking care of his employees and staying in business.
One way he is doing this is with a free book wall outside of the Salt Lake City store.
“We just keep it stuffed with hundreds of free books, because a lot of people are worse off than I am — they don’t have jobs, they’ve got to put food on the table, the last thing they can afford to do is buy a book,” he said. “It’s not a big thing, but we are trying.”
The store is closed to the public, but is offering curbside pickup, free online shipping and free deliveries if the customer lives in the Salt Lake Valley.
Online orders receive a 20% discount in addition to free shipping. Gift certificates, another thing helping keep the store afloat, come with a 25% bonus, meaning a certificate purchased for $100 can be used for $125 in merchandise.
Still, sales were down 50% in March, and Sanders said he expects them to be even lower in April.
He credited Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall for responding to COVID-19 quickly with the city’s $1 million emergency loan program for businesses experiencing hardship. He said the bookstore was granted a loan from the city that has allowed him to keep all of his employees on the payroll and continue operating.
Sanders is also offering a weekly children’s YouTube and Facebook show called “Storytime with Ken Sanders” on Thursday nights.
“We are trying to give back, at the same time we are trying to stay alive,” he said.
Weller Book Works
Weller Book Works is currently closed but is still offering curbside pick up for those who live in the area, as well as doing phone and internet orders.
Co-owner Tony Weller said that store had to lay off its entire staff because it recognized it might not be able to survive the pandemic without immediately cutting expenses.
He and his wife, Catherine, the other co-owner of the store, are working without pay to fulfill orders and keep loose ends together. The store is still holding Lit Knit — an event held twice a month where participants discuss literature while knitting — though its now conducted via internet.
“Like many people in our time, we are thinking of ways to work with the circumstances we have and trying to make the best of it,” Weller said, pointing that he hopes people will remember their local businesses even after the coronavirus stops impacting daily life.
He also commented on the importance of reading, pointing out that it can expose individuals to a “diversity of opinions” and check them against one another — an important way to navigate challenging times while surrounded by a breadth of information.
“I think there is solace found in books,” Weller said. “I can’t tell how it is for another person to live through this, but I’ve read quite a bit in history and literature and I think when our souls are somehow tempered by the experiences of other humans who have also lived through very difficult situations, I think it makes us sturdier as individuals.”
Golden Braid Books
Pamela Brown, part-owner of Golden Braid Books, said the store is offering curbside pickups Monday, Wednesday and Friday.
The shop itself, located in Salt Lake City, is closed, but Brown said employees are trying to focus on improving their social media outreach and on building the shop’s website during the additional time.
While it is not selling as much as before, Brown said the store will be fine as long as the closure is temporary. She encouraged the community to buy gift cards if they are able to and to look at the store’s social media pages — staff members frequently post book recommendations on the various accounts.
Marissa’s Books and Gifts
Cindy Dumas, Marissa’s Books and Gifts owner, said the store is offering curbside pickup between noon and 2 p.m. each day.
Dumas said hers has been one of the luckier bookstores because the business owns all of its products and have them on hand in a warehouse. This has been helpful navigating COVID-19 as it allows for easier, daily shipments, she explained. Shipping is free for purchases $20 and over.
Dumas said it’s been a challenging and interesting seven months. After six years of being located in a building in Murray, the business was suddenly told it needed to move because the lease was up.
The store closed for four months to make the transition and opened up at a new location in Millcreek in January, but closed because of the virus just a few weeks later.
Dumas said it has been challenging but she’s confident she’ll be able to remain in business. She’s even been able to keep all of her employees working.
The store has a variety of educational materials in addition to books — both online and physical copies. In regards to ways to help the store remain in business, Dumas said e-gift cards are a good place to start, also being offered at 25% off.
Many libraries across the state have halted services to help protect customers from potential spread between materials.
Some, like Springville’s library, are still continuing services, albeit greatly modified.
Dan Mickelson, Springville Public Library director, said patrons can place holds on an online catalogue, similar to online shopping. Materials are available curbside for pick up Wednesday and Saturday.
Mickelson said library staff were given the green light from local leaders including the Utah County Health Department to move forward with services.
All returned materials are sanitized and quarantined for at least 72 hours before anyone touches them. Staff sanitize the materials again before distributing to patrons.
Mickelson said people have taken the change in stride and been very appreciative. On an average Wednesday, he said there are about 1,000 to 1,500 books checked out in one day.
He also noted an uptick in e-book checkouts and online database use, like learning a foreign language. Springville’s library is also offering virtual storytelling.
Murray’s library is also doing a form of curbside pick up, as well as virtual storytelling posted to its social media and website.
Salt Lake City Public Library locations are all closed until further notice, though the library is offering virtual services and access to electronic collections such as audiobooks, e-books, research databases and more. The library has asked that no physical materials that were previously checked out be returned at this time.