Independent bookstores across the country offer many a safe haven. These local stores are especially important in New York City as they have a much needed quaint ambiance where book lovers can gather. This year, however, bookstores struggle to stay afloat as they remain closed for the foreseeable future due to COVID-19 social distancing measures.
The issue of bookstores closing is an incredibly troubling prospect in New York City, which is home to some of the most famous locations such as The Strand, McNally Jackson and Three Lives & Company. These stores, along with hundreds of other independent bookstores, are staples across the nation as they provide a sense of comfort for many, as they are integral parts of the community. This is especially true for New York, where bookstores have been places of community for neighborhoods in the midst of decline. Bookstockings, for example, hold book clubs, self defense workshops and monthly support groups for people with chronic pain, among other events. These kinds of programs provide important spaces for locals, and serve as more than just a store where one can pick up a new novel. Rather, they are spaces of gathering for members of the community. It would be devastating to see these kinds of independent bookstores close their doors for good.
Independent bookstores also serve as a vital tool in raising the young generation of readers. Most bookstores offer an extensive children’s section to capture the interest of young kids. Some bookstores even hold classes for children to learn how to read. Without the allure of a physical bookstore and its offerings, it may be harder to ensure that youth read — an activity that is crucial to children, as it has been found that children learn language and literacy skills earlier in their life.
In the midst of the pandemic, McNally Jackson, The Strand and many other bookstores have been forced to lay off the majority of their workers in order to make ends meet. Even as the government offers aid to small businesses, many haven’t even received their loan or have found the loan to be insufficient to cover employee costs.
Even before this crisis, independent bookstores were struggling. Amazon has dominated the field with their online bookstore and delivery service where users can access digital and hardcover books for relatively low prices. Amazon’s online bookstore makes up more than half of all book sales in the world. With Amazon rapidly dominating book sales, local bookstores have become increasingly obsolete. In New York for example, the rise of Amazon has been part of the decline of local bookstores — 386 in 1950 to less than 80 in 2019. The coronavirus has only exacerbated these problems.
With quarantine keeping everyone at home, independent bookstores have had to get creative to make profits. These efforts include bookstores adapting to online business models, holding extensive sales, free delivery and curbside pickup. Even with these measures, bookstores are still seeing an immense dropoff in profit from when the lockdown started.
One organization that has helped the situations of bookstores is Bookshop, which has been helping customers support local bookstores for over a year, and has been an important part of preserving bookstores during this pandemic. The site allows customers to purchase a book through a bookstore of their choice, and the store will end up receiving 30% of the sale. If a customer does not choose a specific bookstore to purchase through, 10% of the sale is distributed to bookstores who don’t have a strong following, but all profits go to the bookstore in any case. A customer can choose to support a specific bookstore as well in their purchase. Bookshop.org has now raised over $1 million for bookstores struggling in the pandemic and the count is consistently increasing.
Another is Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which is a nonprofit that financially helps booksellers and employees in times of emergency. During the pandemic, it has distributed more than $350,000 to booksellers who need money for necessities like groceries, rent and medicine. Overall, BINC has been integral in providing support for bookshops who have been heavily affected by the coronavirus.
More should be done on both the local and federal level that makes sure these local business staples continue on after the crisis. But the reality of the current situation makes this unlikely. Because of this, individual support of organizations like Bookshop and BINC from everyday consumers who can help is necessary to ensure that the sense of community that is provided through independent bookstores lives on.
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Email Sam O’Donnell at [email protected]