How LA’s independent bookstores weathered a year of uncertainty during the pandemic
Even though the Los Angeles Times Festival of Books is virtual once again this year, it’s likely that many book-lovers can’t help but feel optimistic these days. With L.A. County’s vaccines rolling out ahead of schedule, coronavirus cases declining and restrictions on businesses loosening, it feels as though a return to life as it was prior to the pandemic, or at least something very close to it, is on the horizon.
However, it wasn’t long ago when the circumstances were remarkably less hopeful. Only approximately one year ago, L.A.’s independent bookstores were forced to abruptly shut down in response to a virus that most Americans still knew very little about.
“We shut our doors when the order came down from the state,” said Mary Williams, co-owner and general manager at Skylight Books in Los Feliz. “It was a lot of work, and we were just not making anywhere near enough money. We went through half of our savings staying open. We did get a [Paycheck Protection Program] loan which helped us a lot, but it was unsustainable and I was really concerned about how long we were going to be able to hold out and stay in business.”
Only months ago, independent bookstores like Skylight Books were still weathering the challenges associated with staying afloat financially and keeping employees and customers safe amid the worst surge in coronavirus cases and deaths that California had experienced to date.
“It was nerve-racking,” said Julia Cowlishaw, CEO of Vroman’s in Pasadena and Book Soup in West Hollywood. “We were grateful we still had good strong sales, we had people that wanted to shop with us both online and in stores, but being in Los Angeles County, which was just on fire with COVID at that time, was really a very stressful time to feel the need to continue to operate the business under those circumstances and absent vaccinations.”
Skylight Books, Vroman’s and Book Soup are among four other local independent bookstores — Once Upon a Time in Montrose, Pages in Manhattan Beach, Small World Books in Venice and The Ripped Bodice in Culver City — that will serve as designated partner booksellers at this year’s Festival of Books.
In pre-pandemic iterations of the festival, being a partner bookseller meant having an exhibit or tent to showcase and sell books to throngs of book enthusiasts in attendance. During the pandemic, partner booksellers will instead function as specifically designated sellers at each of the festival’s virtual panels and, in most cases, will offer signed bookplates exclusive to their stores.
Even though the circumstances aren’t ideal for partner booksellers, many of those interviewed said that the festival has and will continue to be an incredible opportunity for their stores to gain some visibility from book lovers unfamiliar with their stores, celebrate books and authors and generate sales — sales that are especially needed after a long slog adapting to the difficulties posed by the pandemic.
For the Festival partner booksellers, two characteristics appear to have been a through-line throughout the past year: uncertainty and unrelenting change. Partly because of the ever-evolving nature of the United States’ fight against the pandemic, state and local regulations for businesses changed frequently and at times, erratically, forcing many stores to respond quickly and make dramatic changes on very short notice.
“It’s very stressful because, first and foremost, I feel a tremendous responsibility to the safety of my staff and certainly didn’t open a bookstore with the idea that daily changing protocols of how to operate safely in a pandemic were going to be [part of the job],” said Linda McLoughlin Figel, founder and owner of Pages.
Pages is a general interest bookstore located just a couple blocks from the Manhattan Beach Pier and is such an integral part of its local community that “every kindergartner who starts in the Manhattan Beach Unified School District gets a gift card from them that welcomes them to the world of reading,” Figel said. California’s first shelter-in-place order was issued just one week after the store celebrated its 10-year anniversary, forcing Figel and her team to shut down and make quick changes.
Those changes included pivoting to curbside, or in Pages’ case, courtyard-side pickup, changing relationships with suppliers because some put a stop on all orders and staggering staff to ensure proper social distancing guidelines were being met, all while committing to keep all staff employed among other challenges.
In spite of Pages’ efforts, the bookstore still experienced a 50% decline in sales from March to June in comparison to its previous non-pandemic years.
“Those [were] the dark days, for sure,” Figel said.
Leah Koch, USC alumnae and co-owner of The Ripped Bodice, one of two romance-focused independent bookstores in the United States, was also forced to make quick changes to adapt to pandemic-induced restrictions. The store quickly shifted to processing 100% of its orders online, compared to about 25% in previous years, with Koch packing many of the online orders herself.
“[There] was a real inability to plan for the future at all,” Koch said. “I just had no idea, maybe tomorrow, they’re going to say I can’t leave my house … and there was a time I was definitely worried FedEx or UPS was going to shut down. If we can’t get books then we can’t send people books and then we can’t make money.”
Book Soup, Skylight Books, Small World Books and Vroman’s all made rapid adjustments while facing frightening uncertainty as well. At Skylight Books, curbside pickup was implemented, plexiglass was installed and much of the store was rearranged to allow customers to safely social distance inside. At Vroman’s, the book store transitioned from less than 1% of its sales being online to 100% of its sales being online. After the summer, however, the store still found itself in dire-straits and made a plea to its followers on Twitter to help keep the store afloat.
Fortunately for L.A., it appears that all of this year’s partner booksellers have successfully weathered the pandemic. At the time of publication, all of them remain open and allow for in-store shopping, albeit at limited capacity per state and local guidelines, and all of those interviewed credited the work of their employees and support of their customers as the two biggest factors in making it this far.
Now, with circumstances seemingly improving, many book sellers expressed sincere optimism, though some still held reservations due to uncertainty over the future course of the pandemic and how it might affect customer behavior.
“I think we’re getting excited to open up again,” said Adam Lipman, manager at Small World Books. “You know it’s one of those things where we’re not really sure what to expect — are people going to be running out and wanting to spend money or are they going to be scared about the economy?”
Williams, for her part, also expressed excitement at the prospect of conditions at Skylight Books returning to what they once were prior to the onset of the pandemic.
“We’re really hoping to rearrange everything back to the way it used to be once having six feet between everyone’s desks is no longer necessary,” Williams said. “And we’re looking forward to not being scared at work anymore anytime someone coughs.”