Seattle’s indie bookstores are back in survival mode

Booksellers weathered the threat of big box stores, Amazon and a major recession. Coronavirus is testing their resilience once again.

A pedestrian walks past a bookstore

Empty bookshelves line the windows of Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle on  April 23, 2020. Although the store is closed under Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay at home order, customers continue to support this and other local independent booksellers by ordering from them online. (Jen Dev/Crosscut)

A nationwide recession and oil crisis. Riots. An earthquake. Crushing competition from big-box book stores and homegrown e-retailer Amazon. And then, another recession. The Elliott Bay Book Company has seen its fair share of challenges over 47 years. Now, Seattle’s iconic independent bookstore can add COVID-19 to the list. 

“We have weathered a lot at Elliott Bay,” says Tracy Taylor, who’s been the store’s manager for 25 years. Twice within the past two decades, the store had been just days away from having to close, she says. “I feel like we will weather this,” Taylor adds. 

By “this,” of course, Taylor means the store’s temporary closure in response to Gov. Jay Inslee’s stay-at-home order from late March. (While bookstores are not considered “essential,” many argue otherwise. In fact, various bookshops have signed a petition and written to Inslee asking him to recognize them as essential.) Not to mention the uncertain economic future after the order lifts. 

While on the phone, Taylor stood in Elliott Bay’s spacious and now mostly silent Capitol Hill store. No customers chatting amid the stacked cedar shelves, no squeals coming from the in-store cafe’s espresso maker, only the hushed movements of the store’s head buyer packing up books to be mailed to customers. 

Like Elliott Bay, many local bookstores are operating with a skeleton crew to fulfill email and internet orders. Sales are down, many independent bookstore owners say. Plus, new stock is getting harder to come by and a free curbside pickup workaround turned out to be a no-go under the order. 

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“Business is lighter,” says James Crossley of Madison Books, a tiny bookstore in the Madison Park neighborhood, “but we’re still here, we’re still providing books, we’re still getting support from the neighborhood.” 

Under “normal” circumstances, Crossley would have been gearing up for Madison Books’ one-year anniversary this Saturday, coinciding with Independent Bookstore Day. Last year, during the store’s opening, it was a true “party circus mob,” of book fans and families crowding the store, he fondly remembers. “This year it’ll just be me, in the dark, surrounded by books.”

The national Independent Bookstore Day has officially been postponed to the last Saturday in August, but Seattle bookstores still wanted to come together — virtually — this weekend to celebrate and, according to Robert Sindelar, managing partner of Third Place Books, “showcase what we do best: build human connections through physical books.”

For this miniversion of Independent Bookstore Day, local bookstore employees are sharing clips of themselves reading from Ross Gay’s “The Book of Delights,” a collection of short essays on finding joy in the everyday. 

On Saturday, Sindelar will interview Gay during a virtual author event (likely on Zoom). Sindelar hopes he can also get some local authors to join the chat, but that’s not set in stone yet. What’s sure: He’ll talk to Gay about his book, the importance of indie bookstores and “what it means to find and seek out delight when it’s challenging.”

Challenging is perhaps an understatement to describe the financial state of independent bookstores right now. Larger stores, such as Powell’s in Portland and The Strand in New York, have laid off hundreds of workers. Locally, most bookstores now operate with minimal staff, including Elliott Bay, which has temporarily laid off at least two dozen hourly employees, and Third Place Books, which had to temporarily close its three Seattle locations and furloughed two-thirds of its staff. Some, like secondhand bookstore Twice Sold Tales on Capitol Hill (famous for its live-in cats) and Third Place Books, have launched their own fundraisers to drum up support. 

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“The coronavirus outbreak is a setback that will put many of your favorite independent bookstores in danger of closing permanently,” says the American Booksellers Association. The nonprofit trade organization for independent bookstores has thrown its weight behind a major campaign and fundraiser (spearheaded by author James Patterson) to “Save Indie Bookstores.” While the situation is grim, “making a comeback is possible,” according to the ABA. “Indies have done it before.”

That’s not just the ABA being optimistic. Among indie booksellers, there’s a firm belief in the sector’s tenaciousness. They’ve survived so much: the rise of box stores and chains, Amazon, e-books. Why not this, too?

“The small independent store is a scrappy outfit,” says Crossley of Madison Books. “We already had to deal with a lot of changes. We’re ready to make more if we have to. We can take any kind of pitch.” 

That includes a major recession. As a whole, the industry has risen from the ashes of the economic decline of the late 2000s in what some call an independent bookstore renaissance. In fact, between 2009 and 2018, a recent report says, “independent bookstores proved to be far more resilient than expected.” Central to that resurgence, according to the study, were the stores’ community ties, author readings, book signings, curated selection and a specialized, personal customer experience.

But these are features that are hard to maintain when you can’t let people inside your doors. Some bookstores are hosting virtual book clubs and kids’ story time, using Zoom videoconferencing, offering subscriptions for boxes of poetry picks and sending out “mystery” books and puzzles tailored to preferences customers send via email. But it’s the essence of their business model that coronavirus closures have thwarted, says Janis Segress, manager and co-owner of Queen Anne Book Company. 

“We are having to operate as a fulfillment center,” Segress says of her store, which is still sending out orders from longtime clients via the postal service. “That goes against the base of the business model that we as small indies have going for us: human connection.”

A box of wrapped books at Madison Books in Seattle on April 22, 2020, were intended to be giveaway prizes for Saturday's Independent Bookstore Day. The store is now closed in response to Gov. Inslee’s stay-at-home order. (Jen Dev/Crosscut)

It’s a strange twist of fate. While for years internet retailers breathed down the necks of indie stores by offering quick online sales and delivery, coronavirus has brought about a surprising reversal of roles. Amazon deprioritized the shipment of books and other “nonessential items” amidst the crisis, while smaller bookstores have pivoted to mailing out orders, and in some cases even have their wholesalers send books directly to clients from warehouses (which cuts into bookstore’s revenue, they say). It’s not their forte, they admit. But it helps tide them over. 

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Such a pivot might even help indie bookstores in the long run, says Jenn Risko, publisher and co-founder of Seattle-based book trade publication Shelf Awareness. Indie bookstores are "putting a much bigger emphasis on selling online, which only a few of indies have done well in the past but many have either neglected or not even done," Risko says. Perhaps by the time COVID-19 closures are over indie bookstores will have grown more accustomed to online sales, Risko says, “and we hope that their customers will be better at knowing how to order online from them.”

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While selling online and via mail is not their core business (nor an ideal situation), Segress and others say, their personal touch still comes through. Does an online retailer know some of its customers by name? Is there someone following up on an online order by phone to make sure the person really wanted that large-print edition? A human instead of an algorithm making recommendations? 

“When we answer every web order, we are giving personal messages: How are you and your family? What is it like there?” Segress says. “We miss the human contact for sure.” 

And, in return, “customers have rallied to support us so they have a place to go when this is all lifted,” Segress says. To keep the team’s morale up, she and the store’s two co-owners pass along the encouraging postscripts that come in with online orders. 

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“The notes and messages we get on orders are overwhelmingly beautiful and supportive,” says Elliott Bay’s Taylor, who’s been getting similar notes of support. “It’s really been quite powerful.” 

She remembers the customer who ordered a new book online and took the time to write words of encouragement in the comment section for the order: A quote from Richard Powers’ The Overstory (a book she had purchased at the physical store earlier): 

What frightens people most will one day turn to wonder. And then people will do what four billion years have shaped them to do: stop and see just what it is they’re seeing.

“The fact that she took the time to share it with us is deeply meaningful,” says Taylor. 

Among indie stores, there’s a sense that the thing they’ve always invested in, community, may be the thing that helps them pull through these hard times. The fact that they’ve established a niche that some would consider a liability — a brick-and-mortar space with free author readings and other public events that don’t bring in much money — may be a strength, it turns out. 

When bookstores support authors, they might return the favor. Take Seattle author Maria Semple (Where’d You Go, Bernadette?), who recently gave away ten $50 gift cards to Elliott Bay Books, or James Patterson, who started the campaign to “Save Indie Bookstores.” 

Or take something as “simple” as shipping, says Sindelar of Third Place Books. When presented with the option, the majority of clients will choose to cover part of the shipping costs to take the burden off the store in these hard times. “More people who qualify for free shipping do this [rather] than take the free shipping,” he says. 

“That speaks to the consciousness of our consumers," Sindelar says. "This is not an ‘everybody for themselves’ moment but a ‘how do we help each other’ moment.” 

Most of the independent bookstores around the country have survived challenging times for the industry precisely “by figuring out how to be true places for the community,” Sindelar says. “To me, that means that many of them will figure out how to continue to do that — whatever ‘the other side’ of this looks like.” 

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