Indie bookshops find workarounds to get books into hands of socially isolated customers

Mon, 03/30/2020 - 3:00pm

Like thousands of small businesses across Maine that have been shuttered and classified as “non-essential” businesses per Gov. Janet Mills’ coronavirus mandates, independent bookstores are finding new ways to get books—which are essential—to their customers.

“Everything changed the day non-essential businesses had to shut down,” said Barbara Klausmeyer, co-owner of Left Bank Books in Belfast. “Shortly before that, we went from half-time to half staff, so when we closed our doors, we let people know in our newsletter, that we’re still open for business as far as shipping packages, ordering from our supplier direct from home and processing books for curbside-pick up.” 

Curbside-pickup is basically a call-ahead system, whereby the book, wrapped in packaging (including a caramel treat) is left literally on the front doorstep, so there is zero face-to-face contact.

In a bookseller’s world, where face-to-face contact is the lifeblood of the business itself, these are very strange times.

Klausmeyer said they aren’t quite set up for delivery, but if a customer is unable to access a book from any of their current models, he or she should give Left Bank Books a call. 207-338-2006.

Owl & Turtle Bookshop Café owners Craig and Maggie White have also temporarily changed their business model. 

“For the last two years we’ve closed the entire month of March for vacation, so timing-wise, it gave us more of an opportunity to brainstorm, talk to other small businesses, and see how to continue doing business,” said Craig. “We’re scheduled to open April 1 for phone, email and website orders, but we can’t yet open the physical shop. We’ll also do curbside pick-up and home delivery as well as direct mailing from the distributor.”

“Maybe we should get a VW bus and fill it with books, just like the Bookmobile in the ‘70s,” said Maggie. “Small businesses have to be creative any way you slice it. We’ve found that the personal connections we’ve made in this business have really made the difference. It’s important to us that people in the community know we’re thinking of them and even if we can’t have a face-to-face conversation with them, we’ll find a way to reach them.”

Lacy Simons, owner of hello hello in Rockland, said the bookshop had closed a few days prior to the state mandate.

“We were operational with a new version of the business when the shut down occurred,” she said. “But it still felt like whiplash.”

The bookshop is doing curbside-pick up and online orders, along with care packages customized to the buyer. 

“We might have shipped two orders a week before and now we’re getting 10 to 15 orders a day,” she said. “But with only myself and one employee, it’s tough. We’re realizing this is a long-game. One of the things keeping me sane is Marco Polo, a group chat with other booksellers that I met through the ABA [American Booksellers Association].”

Currently, hello hello has launched a short-term #shoptheshelves event, which limits special orders to what they already have in stock.

Simons said, “This is probably the fifth time we’ve re-invented our book-selling model.”

With a national mandate of social distancing extending until April 30, at the time of writing this article, it is unknown if a statewide mandate will follow. If that happens, like all small businesses already in jeopardy, including Sherman’s Bookstore in Camden, which had to close unexpectedly for good, keeping an independent bookstore open will be a razor-thin judgment call.

“Nobody has a crystal ball,” said Klausmeyer. “I will say we are feeling enormously supported by this community, including summer people, who are having books shipped from us out of state, so we're hopeful we’ll be able to stay in business.”

“We will not be okay if that happens,” said Craig. “We’ll see. Over the last few years, the café, which has been a place for people to come in every day and socialize, has been more of a revenue source. And though it’s vitally important to stay open to pay the bills, both Maggie and I think it’s more important that people stay home and healthy.”

“We don’t want to be the guinea pig where we open up prematurely and new cases crop up,” added Maggie.

After our interview, Simons announced on a newsletter that she struggled with asking for help, but said in the newsletter: “I’ve looked around this quiet shop, which we’ve worked so hard to make feel like a home for so many, and felt like yelling, ‘I don’t want to give this up! I don’t want to lose this!” 

As a testimony to how much hello hello is beloved in this community, a $15,000 GoFundMe goal reached $14,000 in four days.

Here’s hoping the literary anchors in our communities can hang on just a little bit longer.

Bella Books in Belfast could not be reached for comment.


Kay Stephens can be reached at news@penbaypilot.com