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Independent Bookstores Survive the Pandemic, So Far

The storefront of Capitol Hill Books on June 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Dan Friedell)
Independent Bookstores Survive the Pandemic, So Far
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America’s independent booksellers have, so far, avoided the disaster that many feared would come during the first year of the pandemic.

Aaron Beckwith is one of the owners of Capitol Hill Books, a used bookstore located in Washington, D.C.

During the pandemic, Capitol Hill Books started a program called “Grab Bag.” The store put together a bag of books based on the type of books the buyer wanted.

When the program started, Beckwith said, “we had people email us in, and we got a flood of requests once we sent the tweet out that we were starting to do this… We got a thousand orders, within, you know, a few days. It took us months to fill them.”

The inside of Capitol Hill Books on June 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Dan Friedell)
The inside of Capitol Hill Books on June 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Dan Friedell)

American Booksellers Association (ABA) is a nonprofit organization that supports independent booksellers. In May, it told The Associated Press that membership increased from 1,635 to 1,701. The stores that joined were both new stores just opening and existing stores that had decided to join.

The group’s executive, Allison K. Hill, and others feared that hundreds of stores could go out of business during the pandemic. However, the group only counted 14 closings in 2021 so far, with more than 70 last year.

Hill said, “it’s fair to say that it could have been much, much worse.” She described the independent bookstore community as “bruised” but standing.

Hill said there were a few reasons book stores were able to survive the pandemic-caused shutdowns and limited hours, including PPP Loans. A PPP loan was federal government assistance given to small businesses to help pay their employees.

The reasons also include a surprisingly strong holiday buying season in December, and increased online sales. Finally, the rise of helped. The website partners with independent stores to help them reach more readers. It has directed more than $14 million in sales.

But Hill said business for independent stores remains more difficult than ever. Many owners are not expecting in-person events at least through the summer. They are also still facing the growing strength of Amazon, the large online store.

Book sales overall have been strong during the pandemic. But much of that has been with Amazon or low-cost stores with many locations that sell books.

Bookstores are trying to reinvent themselves, and so is the American Booksellers Association.

ABA had more than 1,800 members with more than 2,500 store locations in 2019. This was a large increase from 1,400 ten years ago. ABA, however, once had 5,000 members. Competition from large low-cost stores that sell many items, including books, has made it difficult for independent booksellers.

In recent years, the ABA has reexamined who can become a member as well as its own operation. It changed some rules. Now, only stores where 50 percent or more of products are books can become members. Online-only stores can also join.

The ABA created a group that will reexamine its diversity, reaching out to minority-owned stores. They are also looking at the number of minorities in leadership positions in their organization.

The inside of Capitol Hill Books on June 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Dan Friedell)
The inside of Capitol Hill Books on June 4, 2021 in Washington, D.C. (Dan Friedell)

Capitol Hill Books was able to stay open and be successful because it changed its business model and received government assistance.

Beckwith said about the “Grab Bag” program, “we altered our entire operation to it… And, also, people were really happy… We started ordering new books…”

Selling more new books helped the store stay open. He said, “We were 99 percent used, but, now, we’re 96 percent used.”

I’m Gregory Stachel.

Hillel Italie reported this story for The Associated Press. Gregory Stachel adapted the report and did additional reporting for VOA Learning English. Susan Shand was the editor.


Words in This Story

bag n. a container made of thin material (such as paper, plastic, or cloth) that opens at the top and is used for holding or carrying things

tweet n. a brief message that someone writes on the Internet using a service called Twitter

bruise v. to get a dark and painful area on your skin caused by an injury

diversity n. the state of having people who are different races or who have different cultures in a group or organization

alterv. to change (something)