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How independent LA bookstores survived the pandemic

For the first time since the pandemic swept across the United States, Jazzi McGilbert saw glimmers of normalcy last month.

Staff at the Reparations Club, McGilbert’s bookstore near Jefferson and Crenshaw Boulevard, are taking real vacations instead of being away for COVID-19 testing or “safe sick days,” McGilbert said. The store’s first in-person event in over a year is scheduled for Wednesday; conferences and book fairs are on the horizon; and clients are beginning to emerge from a long period of home quarantine.

“I have ordered online all year round and this is the first time I have visited in person!” customers told McGilbert. And they asked about their return from their Saturday morning night before with cartoons with cereal.

It has been over a year of agonizing uncertainty for independent booksellers in Los Angeles and beyond. They have withstood multiple closings, confusing the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention mandates and sales declines of 50% or more. Most have transformed their business models to accommodate social distancing and door-to-door orders. Many are hopeful for 2021 as sales climb back to 2019 levels and COVID-19 cases continue to decline, but there is a new source of anxiety in a moment that should be festive: the reopening of California this week.

“I feel hectic,” McGilbert said. “Our entire team is vaccinated. Many of our clients, for the record, are vaccinated, but we always apply the mask until they feel comfortable not to. “

All in all, it makes sense.

“We’ve always taken things slowly and obviously following city guidelines,” she said, “but we’re in no rush to pretend things are normal.”

Julia Cowlishaw, general manager of Book Soup and Vroman’s, is “optimistic and uncomfortable” about the reopening of the state. She is concerned about unvaccinated clients, viral variants, and children under 12 who are not yet eligible for vaccinations.

“It will be devastating if there is an epidemic and companies have to retract,” she wrote in an email.

For booksellers like Cowlishaw, the winter outbreak of COVID-19 was not only financially draining; he left psychological scars that cannot be easily covered.

“It was scary,” she wrote. Despite the precautions taken, a few employees tested positive, she said.

Joel Sheldon, the owner of Vroman’s in Pasadena, in October, before a second wave caused another bookstore closure.

(Myung J. Chun / Los Angeles Times)

Two Skylight Books employees in Los Feliz have also tested positive for the coronavirus. Each time, the store was forced to close for a week – first at the end of December, then at the end of January – according to Mary Williams, general manager of the bookstore. It wasn’t until February 10 that the physical store reopened for good.

“It was really tough,” Williams said in a telephone interview. “We had gone through the holidays without a single positive case in our staff.” After the second case, they closed to customers for two weeks.

Yet even before the devastating winter wave of COVID-19, some booksellers have said they are on the verge of shutting down for good. Rainy day funds, Paycheck Protection Program loans, rent deferrals, and the staunch support of the community – especially during the holidays – have helped immensely. For some, it was not enough.

“At the first shutdown and during the surge / winter shutdowns, we ran different scenarios for our projected cash flow and concluded that we would be screwed without outside help,” wrote Alex Maslansky, co-owner of Stories Books & Cafe at Echo Park. in an email.

With Brentwood’s Diesel and Hollywood’s Larry Edmunds bookstore, among others, Stories launched a GoFundMe, which bridged the gap between the first and second PPP loans the company received.

Booksellers expect a full recovery but still have a long way to go to cover last year’s losses. “It will be some time before we can balance last year’s mess,” Maslansky said.

According to the American Booksellers Assn., The independent bookstore business group, 78 of its member stores have closed since March 2020, but 67 have opened, including non-traditional models like pop-ups and mobile bookstores.

“Independent bookstores here in California and across the country are surviving and, in many cases, thriving during the pandemic,” Calvin Crosby, executive director of the California Independent Booksellers Alliance, said in an email. “[They] have been shown to be stubborn and adaptable when threatened by large predatory boxes invading their cities, surface mining, the e-commerce giant and even in the face of a global pandemic. “

Crosby noted that some booksellers have seen pandemic sales exceed previous years. Online orders have been a lifeline, increasing dramatically during closures, COVID-19 outbreaks and the holiday season.

For a while last year, McGilbert’s store operated 100% online as she searched for a new location for the Reparations Club, which was previously in Mid-City.

Over the past year, independent booksellers like McGilbert have continued to make long-term plans – sometimes more easily, with no storefronts to manage.

Chevalier’s in Larchmont Village moved across the street this year after its lease ended; Malik Books, specializing in African-American literature, opened a second store in November inside Westfield Culver City Mall; Village Well Books & Coffee began selling books online last May and officially opened its Culver City storefront in January.

How independent LA bookstores survived the pandemic

Customers waited to enter Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont at the end of November, when interior capacity was severely restricted.

(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Online sales remain strong, even as they return to 2019 levels. McGilbert estimates that around 80% of all book sales are still online orders. According to Williams, Skylight Books receives an average of 60 online orders per day, down sharply from 120 on the first stop and the daily average of 230 in December. In-person sales made the difference.

At Book Soup and Vroman’s, online sales are also still above pre-pandemic levels. To keep up with them, Vroman’s Pasadena recently partnered with the Rollo company to deliver to local customers.

Things are also improving at Stories.

“We are now keeping pace with our historic non-apocalyptic year-over-year increase,” Maslansky said. “As the city reopens, our in-store sales versus online sales are inversely proportional. People are back to finding a book they pick from the shelf, rather than picking a book from the website. We’re coming out of the red, and that light at the end of the tunnel might not be a train. “

As more and more customers feel comfortable shopping in person, booksellers are considering ways to get casual browsers back to their businesses.

Vroman’s in Pasadena plans to reopen its wine bar. And Chevalier’s Books in Larchmont Village is back to its usual promotional strategy: newsletters, social media, curated storefronts, and regular (though mostly still virtual) author events.

But according to Theresa Phung, a staff member, the store didn’t need to do a lot of outreach.

“Customers can’t wait to come back to the stores to buy books and soak up the sun,” she wrote in an email. “Families in particular are ready to bring their children back so that they can just be children. Chevalier recently organized his first in-person book club for children ages 9 to 11.

Other booksellers are sticking to virtual events for now, and some are experimenting with hybrid models, pop-up appearances and bookmobiles.

How independent LA bookstores survived the pandemic

McGilbert, right, with an assistant at the Reparations Club in May. “It’s like wave after wave,” she said. “I feel more of a surfer than a bookseller. “

(Irfan Khan / Los Angeles Times)

“We want to assemble a bookmobile so that we can move it around the city and serve our underserved communities,” said Malik Muhammad, founder and co-owner of Malik Books, the African-American book store in historic Baldwin Hills. Crenshaw. Mall. “We want to take the show to the road. “

The bookmobile performs another function. “Malik is no longer a spring chicken,” he said. “I am 57 years old and the books are heavy.

A television appearance on “The Ellen DeGeneres Show” in January with DJ tWitch helped bring customers and traffic back to the Crenshaw site, which closed for six months and forced Muhammad to launch a GoFundMe. And over the past few months, he’s done on-air book reviews for Ryan Seacrest on 102.7 KIIS FM.

Other stores, like Skylight, are taking a quieter approach.

“We have a queue so often that we feel like any sort of big push would only increase the time people have to wait to get in,” Williams said. But they plan to expand their hours of operation and allow full in-store capacity soon after June 15. Masks will be optional for fully vaccinated customers, but the plexiglass screens on the checkout will remain.

On the whole, booksellers who have made it through the red days of winter express optimism, tempered by varying degrees of caution.

“I don’t want to count all my eggs before they’ve hatched,” Phung said. “Running an independent bookstore can often feel like a game from year to year, or even month to month, and we make sure we stay vigilant. “

McGilbert also remains on her guard, albeit for more specific reasons: Support for black-owned businesses like hers can come and go, she said.

“[Booksellers] are all definitely in community with each other, but there are just a few different hurdles to overcome as a black-owned bookstore, ”she said.

“Not all bookstores are created the same. … It’s just like wave after wave and we ride them the best we can, but I feel more like a surfer than a bookseller.

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