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Books

Across L.A., bookstores close, scramble to stay afloat amid coronavirus concerns

The Last Bookstore
Most bookstores across the country are closing their doors amid coronavirus worries. Few others, like downtown L.A.'s the Last Bookstore, remain open while facing drops in sales.
(Mark Boster / For The Times)

As movie theaters, performance venues, gyms, libraries, sporting events and even Disneyland are shutting down to prevent the spread of the novel coronavirus, bookstores in Los Angeles and beyond have been forced to make some very tough decisions.

Echo Park’s beloved Stories Books & Cafe closed its doors Monday in response to the pandemic. Why? “Because it’s the safest, most responsible decision we can make,” co-owner Alex Maslansky explained in a phone interview.

Though book sales remained strong last week, cafe sales dropped 50%, forcing Maslansky and his business partner, Claudia Colodro, to make the difficult decision to lock up indefinitely. “We will defer to science to tell us when it’s safe to open,” he said.

The decision came a day after L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti ordered bars, movie theaters, gyms and fitness centers to close to slow the spread of the virus that causes COVID-19. Restaurants were forced to halt dine-in service and limit business to takeout and delivery . The L.A. County Library also closed all of its 86 locations Sunday until the end of the month to comply with state restrictions on the size of gatherings. And the sixth annual Independent Bookstore Day, scheduled for April 25, was postponed.

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In New York, the Strand Bookstore shuttered its physical location and online checkout until further notice. Portland’s famed indie bookstore Powell’s announced it would close its five stores through the end of March but would keep online shopping open. In Washington, D.C., Capitol Hill Books took a different approach to the pandemic. Rather than shutting down completely, the business shifted to private, one-hour appointments.

By midweek, major indie bookstores across the nation had collectively laid off more than 600 employees as a response to the coronavirus outbreak, according to Publisher’s Weekly. Among them was Powell’s Books, which announced it was shedding “the vast majority” of its workers.

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“The retail landscape for independent bookstores is very different than it was just a few days ago, and it’s clear that more major challenges lie ahead, for indie bookstores and for all small businesses,” said Dan Cullen, a spokesperson for the American Booksellers Assn., in an email. “This has been an unprecedented economic downturn, with scores of stores having to make the difficult decision to close for in-store shopping.”

By midweek, most L.A. bookshops had done just that.

On Tuesday, Pages in Manhattan Beach closed to walk-in business, but just the day before, customers had trickled in to browse the shelves and purchase puzzles for kids out of school. The breezy bookshop is still taking online and phone orders, and offering curbside pickup and delivery in the area.

“We just felt it was the right thing to do for the safety of our customers and our staff,” manager Kristin Rasmussen said of her decision to close.

Vroman’s Bookstore was also taking measures to encourage customers to hunker down, offering 99-cent shipping for all sales within L.A. County and curbside pickup. By Tuesday morning, they had heeded guidelines from the California Department of Public Health and closed locations in Pasadena and Hastings Ranch for two weeks. They also canceled all events through the end of April.

Chevalier’s Books in Hancock Park remained open on Wednesday, but staff were encouraging customers to do curbside pickup or order books to be delivered to their homes. It was busy over the weekend, staffers said, selling a lot of middle reader books. On Monday the store saw fewer customers, buying mostly adult fiction. While alternative buying methods are now available, rapid developments have made it difficult to plan. “It’s not even one day at a time,” said one staffer. “It’s one half hour at a time.”

West Hollywood’s iconic Book Soup, which shuttered on Tuesday, was mostly empty Monday afternoon, but the phones rang nonstop as customers called to arrange shipping or drive-through pickup for the most sought-after titles.

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“The energy is a little weird,” said bookseller Ben Szymanski, 27, who wore disposable gloves while he worked. “Today is pretty quiet, but it was busy on Saturday with people who wanted to stock up.”

Eso Won Books in Leimert Park shut down “for the foreseeable future” on Sunday, even though the streets were lively with vendors and drummers, said co-owner James Fugate. Instead, the veteran bookshop, which specializes in titles by African American writers, is taking phone and online orders and only letting people in to pick up books. When they do, “just as a measure of protection,” Fugate wears gloves.

“I don’t know how this is going to play out, this is really serious,” he said on Tuesday between taking phone orders. “As businesses, this is probably the greatest challenge we’ll ever see.”

At downtown’s cavernous Last Bookstore, owner Josh Spencer was still grappling with how to deal with an unprecedented situation. He saw sales plummet 50% over the weekend, shortly after President Trump declared a national emergency over the outbreak.

“We’re struggling pretty hard,” Spencer said in a phone interview Monday. “We’re getting ready to emphasize our e-commerce on social media and focusing our online sales through Amazon and EBay.” He’s also considering offering home delivery.

As news circulated earlier in the week of more bookstore closures, store manager Chon McLeary said they weren’t following suit. “We’re still open today but we’re taking it day by day ... that might change tomorrow.”

Though the bookstore was far from empty Monday afternoon — tourists still took Instagram selfies in the upstairs book tunnel and labyrinth, and readers flipped through potential purchases in the armchairs — the traffic inside the multistory establishment was subdued.

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“A lot of us have stopped coming in, so it’s kind of a bare-bones staff at this moment,” said McLeary on Monday, explaining that those still working were primarily employees who couldn’t afford to forgo the paycheck. As far as maintaining a 6-foot distance from others, “it’s been pretty empty in the store so it hasn’t been hard to keep social distance,” said Spencer.

For Lucy Cates and Jackson Bailey, both 21-year-old college students, the Last Bookstore was the obvious place to be. “I think this is a really unique time where you can’t do a lot of things you would want to do, and we both really like to read,” said Cates.

The sparsity of customers enhanced the browsing experience too. “If this place was insanely crowded, I probably wouldn’t have come in,” Bailey said, as Cates pulled a small sanitizer spray out of a leather “Feminist” fannypack and squirted some into her friend’s hands.

The Last Bookstore
Sales at the Last Bookstore plummeted over the weekend shortly after President Trump announced a national emergency over the coronavirus.
(Julia Wick / Los Angeles Times)

While the bookstore has enough orders to stay open for now, that could change rapidly. “If this keeps up for another week or two, then it may be impossible to stay open,” Spencer said. “We might just have to close, but I don’t think we’ll go out of business.”

Skylight Books in Los Feliz officially closed its doors at noon on Wednesday, but it would continue offering curbside pickup and ship phone and online orders. Despite the stress of not knowing when they can welcome patrons in again, manager Steven Salardino was feeling a little hopeful. “Yesterday was our biggest online sales day ever,” he said on Wednesday. “We got five times the amount we normally would have.”

Once Upon a Time in Montrose remained open on Wednesday, but had implemented a one-family-at-a-time policy. Earlier in the week, the children’s bookstore owner Maureen Palacios said it would likely close by the week’s end. Her business is enabling customers to browse the shelves via FaceTime and planning to live-stream author events on Facebook.

After saying it had no immediate plans to close, Diesel in Brentwood made the call on Tuesday to offer curbside pickup only.

Traffic inside the store Monday afternoon was far below the usual number. “Normally we’re packed around this time, especially when kids are out of school,” said Joey Puente, one of two clerks at the store on a day of reduced hours.

“Lots of people are coming in for a specific purpose, getting one or a few books on a list and leaving — not much browsing,” said Puente.

How can bibliophiles support their local literary gems during difficult times? The website Literary Hub put together some suggestions, which included signing up for newsletters, organizing digital book clubs and taking virtual classes from writers. Cullen also proposed supporting the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which is offering financial support to affected booksellers.

Or bookworms can just keep buying, no matter what.

“We sold out of [Albert] Camus’ ‘The Plague’ pretty quickly,” said Maslansky. Preparing to close Stories Books Monday afternoon, he found one last used copy of the existentialist novel for one lucky customer. He’ll keep shipping orders “during the duration of the plague,” but encouraged buyers to look ahead.

“People can still buy gift cards for the post-COVID future if they want.”

Sonja Sharp, Julia Wick, Donna Wares, Alison Brower and Boris Kachka contributed reporting.


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