Op-Ed: Buy from your independent bookstore now — or you may never be able to again
On the side of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena is a mural of a red and black typewriter with a painted piece of paper bearing the words, “I will forever be in love with you. And that’s not fiction.”
When I commissioned this piece in November 2019 as the store’s CEO, it didn’t seem far-fetched to think that Vroman’s, a Pasadena literary institution since 1894, would be around, if not forever, then for a very long time.
Now the store has said it may not make it through the year.
Anyone who has wandered Vroman’s two stories of curated books and gifts, caught up with a friend there for coffee or wine, or met a favorite author at a book signing, knows the shop’s value to the community. But the COVID-19 pandemic has dealt it — and many other beloved independent bookstores across the United States — an unexpected blow.
I left Vroman’s in February to become CEO of American Booksellers Assn. It’s a dream job for me; I love bookstores and I know that Vroman’s and the other 1,745 independent bookstores that we support across the country are heartbeats of their communities. They are run by individuals who love books and are known for their community support, customer service and curation. Recommendations are made by booksellers, not algorithms; displays are inspired by individuals, not corporate planograms.
In my new job I witness on a daily basis what it takes for indies to do this in an industry not known for its financial robustness. As the joke goes: “How do you make a small fortune in the book business? Start with a large fortune.” Independent booksellers are creative, resourceful, hard-working and resilient, and they’ve needed to be during the pandemic.
Since March many independent bookstores have found themselves having to depend on e-commerce and forced to pivot to curbside pickup. They’ve had to replace live events with virtual ones and enforce social distancing, if their stores are open at all. A July American Booksellers’ Assn. survey of 400 member stores found that many have seen sharp sales declines over last year, and results suggest that some 20% of those surveyed may not survive until January 2021.
This statistic mirrors the Small Business Majority’s survey results from August. The group found that, without additional funding, 26% of small-business owners across the United States may not survive past the next three months, and nearly 44% say they may be unable to survive another six months.
If these businesses close, COVID-19 will be listed as the cause of death, but the preexisting condition for many will be Amazon, whose packages have become ubiquitous in apartment building lobbies and on porches across the U.S. Amazon has been boxing out local bookstores and other small businesses all across the country, resulting in the loss of local jobs, local sales tax revenue, and a sense of neighborhood personality, community and tradition. People may not realize the cost and consequences of Amazon’s “convenience” until it’s too late.
The COVID-19 crisis has been heartbreaking on so many levels. People have lost loved ones, jobs and businesses. People have lost hope. On a good day I contemplate all the things I’m grateful for, but like all of us there is so much that I miss from my pre-COVID-19 life, particularly browsing the bustling aisles of my favorite bookstores. The Vroman’s announcement was a jolting reminder that on the other side of the crisis we will have lost many of the things we take for granted.
With this realization comes an opportunity for action: Now is the time to create the post-COVID-19 world we want to live in. In the same way that our votes in the upcoming election will shape our country’s future, where we spend our money in these final days of 2020 will determine the communities we find ourselves in come 2021.
Shopping local now will ensure that the places you love, like the corner bookstore where you met your partner, taught your child to read or discovered the book that changed your life, will still be there in the new year.
Allison K Hill is the CEO of the American Booksellers Assn. and the former CEO of Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena and Book Soup in West Hollywood.
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