Coronavirus diary: effects on a small bookstore

The effects of the coronavirus cannot be foreseen. This might be something we all wake up from in a few weeks or months, and say “Phew, glad that’s over.” Or, it might create a lengthy economic catastrophe or societal changes in the way we interact with each other and with physical retail/professional locations.

This series of blog posts will be my experience as the owner of a pair of small used bookstores in small Oregon towns.

This first post will be mostly background and setting. Today is March 21, 2020. California has issued a shelter-in-place order, Washington is the original US epicenter of the outbreak and is freaking out; located between those states, Oregon has shelter-in-place plans ready but has not yet implemented them. In Linn county, where we have one of our stores, there have been two deaths in a city 11 miles away.

Browsers’ Bookstore was formed in Corvallis in 2001, two months after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. In 2006, we bought our Albany store from a retiring bookseller. Each store has between 75,000 – 150,000 used books (they are hard to count when they’re in boxes and stacks…we are on the messier side of the spectrum.) Both stores have online inventory; although we sell many more books in the store than online, the web sales tend to be for higher-priced books and have always been an important revenue stream.

Up until recently, each store had two employees working in each store almost every day. I would be a third worker and floated between the two stores.

Two of our employees are over 60. One of them elected to stay home as soon as the coronavirus became a scary thing in the USA (about March 11). The second older employee came in one day despite my encouraging to stay home, and then hasn’t been back. One of our younger employees got a cold (probably) on March 13 and went home early. Despite feeling better I asked him to stay home. After further conversations, I laid him off (more on this later) on March 20.

We are currently operating with just me in one store and one employee in the other store.

The three main measures we have taken at this point are:

  1. We are not buying books. We were the first bookstore in the area to stop buying books over the counter. I have been very concerned about the spread of the virus, and don’t want to be taking in books that might be contaminated.
  2. Free shipping to Oregon customers. Again, we were the first in the area to offer free delivery for self-isolating customers.
  3. Obsessive cleaning, sanitizers on the counter, washing of hands, etc. etc. as all retail stores are doing.

Foot traffic has decreased significantly. The number of online sales has decreased significantly. We have always been a store that intentionally encourages browsing and book-hunting, but I feel like the average time a customer spends in the store has also gone down. More shoppers seem focused on a few authors or sections, make their selections, then leave.