Bookstores rewrite the plot
Indies think globally online, act locally in communities
By Smaranda Tolosano
Leigh Altshuler was caught off guard when she was laid off from her marketing job early in the pandemic. With no immediate job prospects, the 29-year-old decided it was an opportune time, despite the challenges, to follow her dream and open a bookstore in the Lower East Side.
She set up shop on Orchard Street at Sweet Pickle Books—which doubles as a fresh-pickle store—in November after having spent the summer driving around the tri-state area amassing shelf stock.
She has encouraged shoppers to think of small businesses like hers as passion projects battling for survival against Amazon.
“Booksellers really put everything into what they’re doing,” she said. “They’re not in it for the money. It’s not a cash cow. You’re in it for the love of books.”
Independent booksellers were forced to close temporarily last spring as part of the citywide lockdown. To recover from the economic downturn and survive the uncertainty, shop owners are embracing new business models.
March was a little bit of a scramble to figure out how to keep going. We put together a website, an online bookstore, in about a week and a half.
Despite Amazon’s success, the American Booksellers Association reports independent bookstores have flourished over the past decade. Now, with in-person shopping restricted, booksellers who weren’t online before have been forced to start digital sales operations.
“March was a little bit of a scramble to figure out how to keep going. We put together a website, an online bookstore in about a week and a half,” said Nicodemus Nicoludis, bookseller at Powerhouse Arena in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, who is also managing editor of Archway Editions, a literary imprint from Powerhouse that launched during the pandemic. The store mainly sold online from spring to early summer, enabling it to survive into 2021. ⇒ cont.
When the sudden lack of foot traffic and tourism took its toll, Powerhouse Arena built a website using a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan.
Nicoludis believes New Yorkers value bookstores and credits locals who have made it a priority to shop with Powerhouse Arena, the only bookstore in the neighborhood.
With so many consumers still fearful of going inside stores, online reservations and in-person pickup have been a popular option for bookstores.
Tessa Benau, a high school teacher living in Prospect Heights, said she follows her favorite local bookstores online and has continued to make purchases.
I think this business has lasted for so long because the community prioritizes the space. People are always putting the space first.
“There’s no reason to shop at Amazon if you live in Brooklyn, especially if you live in Prospect Heights,” Benau said. “There’s so many bookstores you can just walk to.”
Local and online support are more crucial than ever for independent booksellers’ survival. A July survey of 400 American Booksellers Association member stores found that 20% might not survive into 2021.
The digital path comes with its own challenges. Dan Cullen, senior strategy officer at the association, supply-chain disruptions and shipping delays affect re-stocking for stores and delivery to customers.
“We’re dealing with very, very long shipping times,” said Abigay Peña, marketing director at Bluestockings, a feminist, volunteer-run bookstore on the Lower East Side.
Bluestockings was able to survive due to donations and membership fees, which range from $5 to $500 a month. The collective also raised more than $100,000 through GoFundMe, which is helping fund a move to a larger space to better accommodate community events.
“Amazon can get it to them the next few days, and we can only get it to them in a week or two.” Peña said. “We don’t have access to such robust distribution centers and shipping centers.”
Although the pandemic has forced stores to embrace selling online, maintaining a physical store remains important.
Bluestockings hosted several events each day prior to the pandemic and provided opioid overdose reversal trainings, which have been a necessity in the neighborhood, according to collective member Matilda Sabal.
“I think this business has lasted for so long because the community prioritizes the space,” Peña said. “People are always putting the space first.”