PUBLISHED SEPTEMBER/OCTOBER 2020
interview by Alexa Schlosser, Managing Editor, IBPA Independent magazine —
An overview of how independent bookstores dealt with the difficulties of 2020.
Independent bookstores have had quite a year so far. When COVID-19 hit, most were forced to shut their physical locations. Many took this time to focus on their online sales. In our first Q&A, we get the perspective of Sarah High, partnerships manager at Bookshop, an online bookstore with a mission to financially support local, independent bookstores. In the second Q&A, we chat with DeShanta Hairston, owner of indie bookstore Books and Crannies in Martinsville, Virginia. She provides her perspective on both the coronavirus and the effect the calls for racial equality following the death of George Floyd at the end of May has had on bookstores.
Sarah High, Partnerships Manager, Bookshop
In what ways have you seen the coronavirus pandemic force bookstores to change? How is Bookshop helping in this adjustment?
We’ve seen several major changes that booksellers have had to face throughout the coronavirus pandemic. Most stores were forced to close in mid-March of this year, and many had to solely rely on online revenue for their stores. Though Bookshop was just shy of two months old, we were able to help hundreds of stores earn affiliate revenue through their Bookshop affiliate pages. On all bookstore sales on our site, we give 30% revenue directly to the bookstore affiliate (we actually don’t make any money on these sales). A lot of stores have said that Bookshop has helped them stay afloat throughout the pandemic, something we’re really grateful to be able to help with.
Why is it important for there to be an alternative to Amazon?
Amazon has grown from 37% to 52% in just four years (from 2014-2019). E-commerce is also rising about 15% each year. There’s a huge need for a unified presence online that directly benefits local, independent bookstores. We believe that unified front is Bookshop.
What are the biggest obstacles you’ve seen indie bookstores trying to overcome?
Some of the biggest obstacles I’ve seen independent bookstores try to overcome is having a tech-friendly (yet still clean and simple) way to interact with customers. Customers will interact with indies during the day, but at night, they’re shopping on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, etc., due to their dominance on the market. Bookshop has helped stores who wouldn’t normally have a website to be able to have a free storefront and online presence.
How has Bookshop had to pivot to meet the needs of indie bookstores?
Bookshop has made several changes in response to our booksellers’ feedback (and we will always continue to do so in the future). At first, we were going to feature Goodreads reviews on our pages (without linking back to Goodreads, of course), but after a lot of feedback that booksellers would rather not see these on Bookshop (due to Goodreads’ association with Amazon), we decided against it immediately. Another example of how we’ve adapted due to bookseller feedback is that we’ve extended our cookie (the affiliate tag that allows customer to benefit their sales to the affiliate of their choosing) from 48 hours to 30 days to ensure more sales will go to that bookstore affiliate. This option isn’t available to our non-bookstore affiliates. In the future, we’ll have a feature that allows customers to choose which bookstore they’d always like to benefit when they’re shopping on Bookshop.
What does the future hold for indie bookstores, and what does the relationship with Bookshop look like post-pandemic?
I believe with Bookshop, the future looks bright for indie bookstores. Bookshop is not at all a replacement for going into and buying directly from your local indie first; we’re merely an indie-friendly Amazon alternative if at first you can’t get to your local indie. Bookshop is a B Corporation, which means our goal is to support the public good. Most of our sales go directly to indie bookstores, and on the sales that aren’t directly benefiting a bookstore, 10% goes to our indie bookstore distribution pool. Post-pandemic, Bookshop wants to encourage our users to get back into their local indie bookstores! We’ll continue to adapt and change in direct accordance to however indie bookstores need us to adjust.
DeShanta Hairston, Owner, Books and Crannies, Martinsville, Virginia
In what ways did the coronavirus pandemic force your bookstore to change?
The pandemic really forced me to build my business on a more creative model. As a mostly brick-and-mortar store, I have always had a website but received minimal traffic there. Not being able to open physically forced me to push online sales more and promote business on social media to account for the in-store sales I would be missing. My initial feeling when I saw brick-and-mortar stores closing was a little anxious and nervous.
Were you forced to cut back in any significant way in terms of your budget and potential profit outcome?
Being in a small town, my business has always sort of just scratched the surface of making it. So, I didn’t know if the pandemic would completely wipe me out or not. Ironically, people were reading more during the pandemic, which kept my sales going in the months we were closed. Offering curbside pickup and free local delivery was a great way to keep customers happy.
What changes has your bookstore seen in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement and civil rights protests around the country?
With the wake of Black Lives Matter, my sales have soared in ways I never imagined they could. I have been swamped with online orders from customers all over the nation looking to support Black-owned bookstores and read more Black authors. I think the best way to educate yourself about the civil unrest taking place right now is to read more about the plight of Black people and the oppressed. Booksellers play a pivotal role in being the source of education during these times. I have never seen such a turn in the nation where people are actively seeking to educate themselves on Black history and our nation’s real history; I have no choice but to be hopeful that the entire world is ready to change for the best, and I’m thankful to be part of the movement.
Alexa Schlosser is the managing editor of IBPA Independent. Do you have a story that might be good for the magazine, or do you have interest in contributing? Contact her at email@example.com.