Coronavirus diary: Open for business

Today was day two of being secretly open.

On Monday, I learned that some counties might be able to open by Friday (May 15). I figured that meant Eastern and Southern Oregon. On Wednesday, however, I learned that ALL retail stores could re-open Friday. Alas, I’d had almost two months to make the stores a total mess, plus I wanted to change some things to make them more health-conscious. So, my newly hired-back staff and I spent a huge amount of time and energy working on reopening the stores.

The main thing was to make a quarantine area for newly-acquired books. This is particular to secondhand merchandise–almost all of our stock comes from a private home of unknown contamination levels. I looked at what health experts recommend (24-48 hours), what libraries are doing (3 days’ hold before returning to circulation), and then doubled that. We are going to hold books for a full week before we let anyone be able to touch them. However, what that means is: we needed an area big enough to handle that kind of flow.

Albany turned out to be pretty easy, just by clearing out a dead space that I’ve mostly been using for storing boxes of lower-quality books. Adios!

Corvallis, on the other hand, was a huge Tetris puzzle. I thought about reclaiming either That Room, or the Christian or Art Rooms, but couldn’t figure out where to put everything. I finally settled on an unusual solution: smack dab in the middle of the store. For the past several years, we’ve had some disparate sections and some awkward cases there. So, we’ve made a huge change that will be obvious to everyone who enters. Jannett, Jackson, and I are all pretty excited about it. I texted some pictures to Carol, and she was suitably impressed, as well.

What’s the retail experience like?

In the first place, we are requiring customers to wear masks. This is a little more stringent than some retailers, but not unique at all (even Costco is doing it.) So far, only one person had a differing opinion, and he was quite polite about it and respected our position. That’s part of why we are still offering curbside pick up or free delivery. One other guy stopped by the dollar store to pick up a bandanna for his nephew! People will adapt, and hopefully it won’t be for very long.

Anyway, I’ve been nervous because of these stories on the news about people being hurt or even killed by enforcing a mask policy, but it looks like so far that Albany understands we need to beat this thing, and facial coverings are an easy way to help. As my daughter said, it’s not any more invasive than the “no shirt, no shoes, no service” policy that pretty much everyone abides by.

People are happy to be able to look around the store again. I kind of thought that people would come in, look for the specific author/title they have in mind, and then dash out the door. This preconception came from answering these kinds of emails for the past couple of months. Instead, people are very content to take their time and browse. A used bookstore is a special kind of place, and the experience of shopping can be more fun than in a lot of other types of retail stores, but I was still a little surprised, and greatly relieved.

Traffic is down, partly because we aren’t promoting the fact we’re open, but the interest is high. People want to shop for books. But also: people want there to be a bookstore in their city. I think the reality of various businesses never reopening is scaring a lot of people, and being in a town without a bookstore is just not right, somehow.

So, the retail experience is almost cooperative, where the shoppers are conscious that they are helping our business, even as they help themselves to the great bargains to be found at Browsers’ (c’mon, I had to put that plug in here!) But seriously, there’s a little more of a community spirit than before. It’s more reminiscent of the days following 9/11–I haven’t felt that bond with strangers during the isolation weeks. On the other hand, there’s a continuity to it that is comforting. I’m having the same conversations that booksellers and readers and collectors have had for untold generations, and the neighborhood bookstore looks like it just might survive the apocalypse.