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How the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted bookstores

While 52 member bookstores of the American Booksellers Association have closed since the pandemic started, many are still trying to hang on.

AUSTIN, Texas — When Austin native Joe Bratcher moved back from New York City, where he ran a small publishing press, he had a desire to open a bookstore. 

"... one of the things that I enjoy about being in a bookstore as opposed to being online is the serendipity of what you find," Bratcher told KVUE.

So he did, and in 2013, when e-books and kindles were seemingly the way of the future, he opened up Malvern Books right on the corner of Rio Grande and West 29th streets in Central Austin. 

“I thought that I was actually going to be kind of an antique shop and it would be a specialized place. But it hasn’t been the case," Bratcher said. "People do like to have the physical book and they like to shop and hold the book in their hand while they're looking..."

The store, which carries poetry, fiction and a small section of essays, has seen a consistent following grow over the years with the help of hosting book clubs and other events. 

But if one were to try and enter the store today, they'd come across a locked door, and a sign reading in part, "schedule an appointment," because of COVID-19. 

Still, longtime stores like Malvern Books, BookPeople and South Congress Books have weathered the pandemic, but it's not the same story everywhere. 

Credit: Luis de Leon
Inside of Malvern Books in Central Austin.

Not all bookstores have made it

According to a financial survey conducted in June by the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 20% of independent bookstores (which are member stores of ABA) were in danger of closing across the country by January 2021. 

Fifty-two bookstores have closed so far since the pandemic started, according to the ABA, which is an average of more than one a week. Three of those were in Texas. 

"... pretty quickly we realized that it was going to be a marathon, not a sprint," said ABA's CEO Allison Hill, who started as CEO in March during the beginning of the pandemic. "I still remember when iPad and Kindle and all of those things were coming onto the market and we all looked around and thought, 'Uh oh,' but we've seen this kind of renaissance for bookstores, especially independent bookstores, and we've seen this rise in book sales."

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That rise in book sales drew confidence going into 2020, Hill said. Book sales were up 6%, but Hill believes that is primarily because of people shopping online at Amazon, rather than local stores. 

"... in general, we're really trying to raise awareness for people about the impact of those consumer choices. And that when you do that one click on Amazon, there is a direct impact on your community that when you buy locally," Hill said, adding that she understands people shop on Amazon for various reasons during the pandemic. "Independent bookstores are so supportive of their communities and are so part of the fabric of towns and cities all across the country. And I think they've proven that during the pandemic. I think they've seen this really rallying of support from their communities during this time."

Credit: Luis de Leon
A statue of a lion inside of Malvern Books with a mask on, sits in front of the santizing station at the entrance of the bookstore.

Adjusting to the 'new normal'

At Malvern Books, up to three customers are allowed inside at once when scheduling an appointment. Plexiglass has been installed at the register, and hand sanitizer sits right at the entryway next to a masked-up lion. 

Bratcher said he was expecting 2020 to be a strong year. 

"It was going great guns until we had to close on March 13," he said. "We were closed in April. We were closed in May. I made the decision that we could not stay closed anymore and we opened only to curbside pickup in June. We also shortened hours and our days. We're only open five days a week from 12 to 5 now, whereas we used to be open seven days a week, about 10, 11 hours a day."

It was in October when Bratcher started to allow customers inside, but he said the main factor that hurt the business was not being able to have the usual crowd inside to read, host events and more. 

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"... we would just have 30, 40 people in the store to hear people read. And, of course, those people would buy books. That doesn't happen even now with the appointments and the curbside, which is picking up because we have a very strong, committed following. It's very tough," he said. 

Allison Hill with ABA said adapting to the new normal speaks to what bookstores are all about. 

"... stores have had to kind of shift gears, depending on the region that they're in or the circumstances of their store. And, unfortunately, even when their online sales have been up since many of these stores sell online, their expenses have been up as well and their foot traffic has been down," Hill said. "... it's so much a part about of independent bookselling that they are creative and resilient and innovative, and they've had to double down on that during the pandemic. So, in many ways, they've kind of risen to the occasion."

Credit: Luis de Leon
Joe Bratcher, the owner of Malvern Books, stands in his store surrounded by thousands of books.

Optimism for the future

As bookstores have had to get creative, and many seemingly have stayed in business, the employees of bookstores are part of the massive group in the U.S. that are unemployed. 

Malvern Books had to let go quite a bit of their staff, according to Bratcher. But the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a 501 (c)(3) nonprofit dedicated to booksellers in need, stepped up to help during the pandemic. 

Since the onset of the COVID pandemic, the BINC Foundation told KVUE that they have distributed more than $2.9 million to more than 2,200 book and comic store owners and their employees across the country. 

"This is undoubtedly a challenging time for bookstores and comic shops, as it is across the board for retailers during the pandemic, but book and comic sellers are an adaptable and tenacious group," BINC Executive Director Pamela French said in a statement via email. "Stores have found many ways to keep reaching their customers and serving their communities, including increasing online sales and marketing, offering curbside pick-up and holding virtual events. We are confident that brick-and-mortar bookstores and comic shops will survive and continue being a vital part of their communities. We encourage consumers to support their local bookstores and comic shops by shopping with them, as much as they can, this holiday season."

As for Malvern Books, Bratcher assures the public, that they're not going anywhere. 

"Malvern is going to be here. And, you know, we just can't wait until we can just not lock the door at all," he said.

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