Bookstores Face Weeks of Closure Just as Readers Need Them Most

The Booksmith on Haight Street. (Photo by Amy Stephenson)

Like many small businesses deemed non-essential, Bay Area bookstores will close to the public on Tuesday, sending their staff home and sheltering in place by county or city mandate.

This is especially hard for booksellers, many of whom view their services as essential to the health of civic life, by keeping their customers informed, entertained and distracted during a global pandemic.

“We haven’t closed since the 1989 earthquake and that was only one day,” says Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of Green Apple Books, which currently has three locations and 40 staff. “That’s 52 years of uninterrupted bookselling.”

Of the shelter-in-place order, he says, “It’s a relief in some way because it takes it out of our hands. We weren’t sure what the best thing to do was.” He had planned to restrict the number of customers in the store and provide curbside pick-ups for online orders, but he admits that the pessimist in him saw these more drastic measures coming.

What he can’t predict is the future of his business during and after the shelter-in-place order.

Inside Green Apple on Clement Street; the bookstore has two additional locations, Green Apple Books on the Park and Browser Books. (Courtesy of Green Apple Books)

In recent years, independent bookstores have distinguished themselves by providing what online retailers like Amazon can’t: a sense of community. Now, that very advantage is a danger to their customers, many of whom are at higher risk for serious illness from the coronavirus.

Sponsored

“We’re in the business in bringing people together over literature and art,” says Silver Sprocket owner Avi Ehrlich.

Ehrlich just moved his indie comics shop from the Haight to a new location on Valencia Street at the beginning of February, ordering large quantities of books for the store’s grand opening party, which was meant to take place March 21.

“We’re already in the red,” Ehrlich says. “We were counting on the opening party to pay back all these credit cards we put the books on.”

Bookstore employees, like other hourly workers, are facing weeks of uncertainty in the face of city restrictions on work and travel. Sarah Manolis, events manager and bookseller at The Booksmith, says, “A lot of our staff are pretty anxious.”

Mulvihill says Green Apple’s priority in the coming weeks will be their staff. With what little money they have on hand, they will pay everyone through Friday and then exhaust their PTO for the year. After that, he says, “I truly don’t know how long we will be able to keep anybody.”

“My number-one hope is that my staff can eat and live and have their health taken care of,” Mulvihill says.

Related coverage

With San Francisco, Oakland and Berkeley Public Library locations closed to the public for the foreseeable future, people who want to momentarily transport themselves via a good book will need to turn to either digital services or purchasing books online. All local bookstores urge their patrons to frequent their online stores.

“Most local bookstores do not have the infrastructure and backend that places like Amazon have,” Manolis says. “When you are buying a book from a bookstore, the people you’re benefiting are the actual people in the store.”

“We hope you have enough books for your shelter-in-pace,” reads the “updates” section of The Booksmith’s homepage. “If not, we’ve curated lists of our current feature displays so you can browse and choose books the way you would in three dimensions.” Manolis say they’ll be adding the shelf talkers (bookseller testimonials) that so often convince customers to buy books as they build out The Booksmith’s site.

Ehrlich encourages people to listen when businesses and affected by the shelter-in-place order ask for help: “People are being direct about what they want.” At the same time, he says, he won’t be angry if anyone prioritizes groceries over comic books.

But, store owners say, we shouldn’t underestimate the health benefits of a good read.

“We see print and books as a throughline or continuity that people can rely on when things get weird or it feels like the world is ending,” Booksmith manager Camden Avery says. “Books aren’t in a hurry.”