Notebook: Booksellers Look Ahead, Part I

Ann Kjellberg, editor

The front table at the Seminary Co-op bookstore in Chicago, before and after lockdown, readied for its new life as a remote book distribution center, and in its virtual incarnation as a catalog for readers. Seminary Co-op was the first bookstore to go not-for-profit, in the fall of 2019, declaring its mission not only to be to sell books but to be an enduring cultural institution allowing readers to interact with a space dedicated to books and reading

I stumbled on a very interesting report in the trade magazine Publishers Weekly recently about the dilemma facing booksellers as they stock up for the fall and holiday seasons. Most bookstores rely on holiday sales in December to carry the year: call it commercialism, but one could think also that once a year readers bend themselves to thinking about what their friends will like to read, and that’s where a lot of our reading begins, a kind of annual circle of intellectual torch-passing. Booksellers are looking to what is being published in the fall and trying to predict where our interests will lie in the likely unprecedented months ahead.

The fall was already looking greatly complicated by the election. Even before the pandemic hit, publishers were reportedly avoiding scheduling non-political books in competition with it; and booksellers were considering that the election’s outcome could shift the country’s reading mood decisively. But if a bookseller doesn’t order ahead they can get stuck: such external factors as trade wars with China and Canada and upheavals in the paper industry have flummoxed books’ supply chain in recent years and caused blockages in the delivery of books just when booksellers need them the most. (Booksellers had to scramble for Michelle Obama’s Becoming, one of the bestselling books ever, for weeks after its November publication in 2018.) A revival of the coronavirus in the colder months could could stymie distribution; during March and April, as many of us grieved that warehouse workers were exposing themselves to illness in order to deliver things to those able to shelter in place, it was vital to the continuity of bookselling that the distributor Ingram was judged an essential service and remained active. We saw just in recent months when publishers ran out of copies of books about racism when interest surged that (1) physical books are still at the heart of how we address ourselves to complex ideas and (2) being physical, they have to be made and delivered in real time.

Now independent booksellers, whose longevity and resilience we were already celebrating pre-covid and which now seems almost miraculous, are gazing into the same mystery future as the rest of us and trying to place bets on where it will go. Add to that the question they are wrestling with of how to sell books in the absence of the very things that had made independent bookselling unexpectedly durable: the experience of browsing in a real-life store and the value of a connection with a real human bookseller.

Readers don’t think about it much, but when you enter a bookstore what you see is a story that someone has thought a while about telling you: a journey past books that are meant to reach the person you are and also the person you want to be; books that invite you to come in further and to linger; books that greet you with the familiar and challenge you with the new. A great bookstore is in active sympathy with its neighborhood: both the people who yearn for a bookstore and the people who might hesitate to enter one. How to display books in a way that makes different people feel welcome? How to meet their needs and anticipate their aspirations? The recent George Floyd protests for instance had booksellers thinking both, how do we help readers challenge and contemplate their participation in racism and, at the same time, how do we give attention to the stories of marginalized people and serve their needs as readers? opposite sides of a coin. Some readers lamented that the examination of racism and injustice was overwhelming the multifarious positive contributions of Black people to reading culture. Black-owned booksellers, flooded with requests for books about racism, noticed the shift in their client base. Another question is how to contribute to the journey of those who were protesting and perhaps also to those who were threatened by protesting.

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Without the physical store, and the booksellers in it, this delicate internal conversation is dispersed. Many American bookstores remain physically closed and are selling books only online and over the phone (though some have made the phone its own source of connection); those that are open are obliged to curtail foot traffic and still rely heavily on remote sales. They wrestle with reconfiguring store spaces to protect staff and customers; with how much space to turn over to the fulfillment operation that is helping keep them going. The Publishers Weekly report made me wonder how booksellers are picturing how our lives will change in the months ahead as they order for the future, how they are learning to connect books to readers through these new virtual means, and what all this portends for their ability to put a broad variety of ideas in readers’ path. I spoke to some of our partner booksellers and other friends and this is what I found out.

It is definitely a major challenge to “reimagine browsing,” as Jeff Deutsch of Chicago’s Seminary Co-op (see above) put it, for an age of quarantine, when most readers are buying from a web site or on the telephone, having decided what they are looking for most often before they arrive. Carole Horne of Harvard Book Store said, “all the strategies that I’ve used for years and years don’t work as well anymore.” Looking at the new books coming out “I always think, ‘Who is the customer? Where is it going in the store?’ … It’s less clear who the audience is and it’s less clear who will be around.” Bookstores are enormously grateful for the burst of loyalty readers have shown since March by buying virtually, but the readership—where it gets its information, how it found its way to you, what it will want next—is somewhat of an enigma.

The main window that buyers and sellers have on each other is of course a store’s web site: a virtual room where booksellers can hold up the books they think will interest their readers and offer their take on what there is to read. But, says, Danny Caine of The Raven in Lawrence, Kansas (Book Post’s Spring 2019 partner), “I’m a bookseller and a poet, not a web designer. Creating an immersive browsing experience in real life and creating an immersive browsing experience on the internet are two very different things, and I am much better at doing one of those things than the other.” Suzanne DeGaetano of Mac’s Backs in Cleveland (our Autumn 2019 partner), says she has been thinking less about selling specific books than creating, with staff recommendations and bits of news, a web site where their customers can return and maintain a feeling of ongoing connection.

All our booksellers said that they can see in their new virtual customer base echoes of the neighborhood they have known—readers who moved to different cities and even countries and have come back to show solidarity in the crisis. They feel that they know their readership broadly and can speak to it, hand-delivering around their neighborhoods and offering curbside pickup even as they email and ship to other time zones. Some, like Seminary Co-op and East Bay Booksellers in Oakland, have created virtual catalogs or magazines to show their readers what is coming up. Seminary Coop plans to print copies and drop them on neighbors’ doorsteps, a historic practice from their sixty years as a local institution. (Part II in subscribers’ in-boxes or here)

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