We’re walking through “a unique moment in time,” Mary Ellen Hartje told me. “I don’t want it to happen ever again; it’s a horrible moment. But this little portion allows… a little bit of a gift, that we wouldn’t otherwise get, through books.”
New to the entrepreneurial world, Hartje opened San Angelo’s Old Town Books just a few months ago after growing restless in retirement. San Angelo does not currently have a shelter-in-place order, so Hartje’s shop remains open to the public. Proactive purchases of hand sanitizer and the store’s small size—it rarely holds more than ten visitors at a time—are what made such a decision even possible, she said. And, with some creativity, she intends to keep it that way for as long as she can. “We’re sitting here today just brainstorming things we can do,” she said. “We’re not afraid to try anything that we think will get books to people.”
Hartje is one of the many independent bookstore owners across Texas navigating her business through the uncertainty of the coronavirus pandemic. The spread of COVID-19 has turned those who work in the book industry into problem-solvers, contemplating new policies that balance the health of their customers with keeping the lights on. Approaches vary widely, from curbside and home deliveries to live-streaming storytimes on Facebook. But nearly all are working to emphasize their online presence. “So many people who want to shop local fail to connect the dots that you can shop online and still shop local,” said Kyle Hall, general manager of Interabang Books in Dallas.
A beloved bookstore also known for its resilience after surviving a tornado last October, Interabang must now comply with Dallas’ shelter-in-place order, which took effect Monday. The store offered curbside service and even shopping by in-store appointment as recently as last week; through April 3 and potentially beyond, it will rely exclusively on online purchases. While Hall said navigating coronavirus “feels like a challenge we’re up for,” he remembered that after the tornado it took a while for even their loyal customers to realize they could shop online. “That was when we really learned that people who want to help really just sort of need to be directed in the ways that they can do it,” he said. Interabang is not alone; big-city favorites like BookPeople in Austin and Brazos Bookstore in Houston have transitioned to online-only sales and are offering perks like free shipping to help keep them afloat.
As is the unfortunate trend among local businesses, coronavirus has put independent bookstores’ employees at high risk of losing their jobs. Claudia Maceo, manager of San Antonio’s The Twig Book Shop, closed the storefront’s doors to the public last week but promised her employees two weeks’ salary. With San Antonio’s new shelter-in-place order in full swing and the end of her pledged two-week period approaching, Maceo says she will open up a conversation with her staff soon about moving forward. “Should I release them and let them file for unemployment?” she wondered, hoping they could claim some benefits. She, like many others in the industry, is balancing the health of her business with the financial needs of her employees. Maceo believes her employees could find work at a grocery store, but she hopes to promise her workers that the layoffs would only be temporary. She hopes supermarkets like H-E-B, who’ve seen increased demand in this environment, might be able to employ her workers. “But when they need to cut people because it’s temporary, then I would [hope to] get my employees back again.”
Stefani Kelley, owner of The Book Nook in Brenham, believes books are more necessary than ever during the coronavirus crisis. In a time when in-person instruction is suspended indefinitely for those still in school, Kelley argues books should be thought of as essential. She continues to fill phone and online orders from her closed storefront, hoping customers will invest in books’ ability to “educate and enlighten,” she said. If a future shelter-in-place order restricts her ability to visit her store and ship inventory, she’s planning on relying on her Ingram-based warehouse to supply customers.
Hall from Interabang emphasized the unique ability of books to soothe us in these times. “Books are certainly stimulating, as it can be to stream a movie or to download a game and play it. But they are also an escape and a sort of refuge in a way that those things simply aren’t, and it’s been that way for centuries,” he said. “And I can’t really see it changing because the way people spend time with books is automatically very personal. It’s just you and your book.”
Author Tim Bryant, owner of Bosslight Books in Nacogdoches, witnessed the power books have to build community amid social distancing over the last several weeks. “I’ve seen people on Facebook and they’re all talking about, ‘I’m reading this book. What are you reading?’” he said. “[Reading] draws people together. It’s something to talk about… It’s a way to keep things normal.”
Many independent bookstore owners are hoping that community aspect will drive their customers to continue to order and support them. “People are specifically saying when they call to order a book, ‘We’re really worried about you. We want you to survive. We hope that you’re doing well. Let us order these books.’” Maceo from The Twig said. She’s hopeful that things will return back to normal soon. “Maybe it won’t be as long as we think,” she said. “We’re all contributing to stopping the virus from spreading.”