Notebook: Announcing our New Bookstore Partner, Astoria Bookshop! A Story of Queens (Part Two)

by Ann Kjellberg, editor

Scenes from a bookstore pandemic: (1) The force is with Astoria Bookshop owner Lexi Beach for Halloween; (2) Lexi on the local news encouraging viewers to shop local; (3) the team takes a moment to reflect on friendship, with a book; (4) appreciation post for mail carrier Matt; (5) author Casey McQuiston visits to rally romance readers and sign books; (6) Children & Family Events Specialist Gina Verdi gets the word out about story time

Read Part One of this announcement here!

Nowhere has owner Lexi Beach and her Astoria Bookshop’s engagement with their community been more visible than watching the pandemic bear down on them. Lexi from day one took a protective approach to her staff and her customers, carefully explaining in the store’s blog in late March, early April, mid-June, and October the steps they would take to keep everyone safe (March 25, 2020: “Our crew is small, and the majority of us have loved ones considered high-risk for the virus. We also want to be sensitive to the workload of USPS mail carriers and UPS drivers [shout-out to our guys, Joey and Reggie!] whose time and effort is better put towards delivering food, medical supplies, and other essential items”). The shop was fully closed for two months, routing orders to the shop’s portal on, until they had the capacity to handle orders safely themselves, and then opening only for scheduled pickup, which gradually expanded to by-appointment browsing. Lexi and her team wrestled with how to stay in touch with and support their customers. While corporate publishing was telling The New York Times that new books could not get traction in the pandemic sales environment, Lexi was on the ground “tying to figure out how to bring new books that we are excited about to readers’ attention.” She and Astoria created a Google hangout to chat with booksellers and Instagram live story time with kids, using direct messaging to offer advice and support to parents and older children. Children and Family Specialist Gina Verdi wrote of virtual storytime:
Our weekly IG livestreams started on March 18, 2020 with me, my iPhone, a stack of picture books, and permission from my daughter to use one corner of her room for filming … While I was happy to have my technology sorted, I wasn't sure about the book magic. How do I get viewers to waddle like a penguin or make a hippo snort? For me, story time is a conversation.
Worry not.
We figured it out. We played hide-n-seek within a book, counted lady bugs in Spanish, guessed hidden words, read books upside down and then right side up, learned some ASL, worked on our mermaid swimming technique, created emoji patterns … We found soooooo much glorious "secret art" when taking off the dust jackets of our books. We kept our (sometimes imaginary) magic wands in our (sometimes imaginary) back pockets as per usual and turned story time into what it needed to be this year: a socially distant, but magically cozy escape from reality.

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Lexi credits the fidelity of her customers with the store’s endurance through the pandemic. Although she received meaningful funding in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), she found the process frustrating:
In the early days, I signed up for every webinar offered by various city orgs & trade groups to try to understand what the hell my options were. Even then I didn't learn until February '21 that I could get a payroll tax credit for paid sick leave that was covid-19 related. The first bill was a mess, given how the PPP was rolled out, but really it should never have been left to employers to make sure people still had money for rent and food when businesses were forced to close.

Given the uncertainty of receiving unemployment benefits and Lexi’s commitment to the staff, her employees stayed on, but many small businesses found the PPP process impenetrable and the conditions internally inconsistent. A study at the end of December reported that PPP benefits went disproportionately to large businesses.

Commercial rent protection during the forced business closure has also been elusive. It took Lexi three tries to get a response from her landlord to a proposal for reduced rent during New York’s state-imposed lockdown. Information about available benefits has been scarce and the downsides of accumulating outstanding debt daunting in spite of nominal eviction protections. In Lexi’s view, the rapacities of commercial rent are the biggest obstacles to small business. “I have practically no rights as a commercial tenant—not even the right to a habitable environment—and have received no relief from my landlord during the pandemic.”

As significant as the federal measures for Lexi have been small regional and industry-based grants, which she scrambled to secure. A project by the ad agency R/GA pairing graphic designers with small businesses to raise funds through custom t-shirts and totes, brought another infusion. The DIY t-shirt company Bonfire has a similar program now (buy Astoria’s “Be Well, and Be Well Read” t-shirts here). Customers also supported the store by essentially loaning them money with pre-orders and gift cards.

The fortitude and creativity with which independent booksellers have responded to the pandemic, and the gratitude and fidelity of their lonely, house-bound, frightened, even physically threatened customers, is a lesson to us in the sustenance we can receive from from our commercial arrangements: a bookstore is as much about care and imagination as it is about product. The much-touted indie revival of the last twenty years is to a large degree (as shown last year by Harvard Business School Ryan L. Rafaelli) about presence (another study: when looking at bookstore revenue, “high foot traffic is key”), and yet booksellers managed somehow in the last year to channel a shared experience even when presence itself was banished. Which I guess they are good at because they do a lot of reading.

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