Indie Spotlight: Children’s Bookstores Survive !

Madison Duckworth and owner Susan Selfors at Liberty Bay Books, Bainbridge Island

In spite of the challenges of Pandemic closures, children’s  bookshops have found creative ways and generous friends to help them stay in business. When COVID became pandemic, those following the book business assumed that widespread unemployment would mean a decline in book sales. They weren’t counting on people stuck at home doing their own cooking or repairs and wanting to know how. People curious about other pandemics in history or, in response to the Black Lives Matter protests, about African American history,  and racial injustice. Most of all, they underestimated the desperation and determination of people staying home with their out-of-school children!

The good news is that book sales actually went up in 2020 ,  and that the biggest increase was in children’s books. The not-so-good news is that most of that business has gone to Amazon.  The online giant has  been thriving while independent bookshops have struggled and sometimes gone under.

With COVID restrictions, everything that defines bookshops, everything they do best. was now impossible. At heart a bookstore is a place. A place where people can go to browse at leisure, talk about books. and get recommendations from booksellers.  Booksellers who have curated their collections and know their customers and communities. It is a place to attend community events, classes, author talks, book clubs, concerts. Now that their doors were ordered closed, how could independents survive?

One answer is: with a little help from their friends! As he has in the past, bestselling author James Patterson has made a generous donation to help bookstores survive the crisis. Early on, he launched #SaveIndieBookstores, a partnership with the American Booksellers Association and the Book Industry Charitable Foundation. He personally  contributed $500,000 for grants to bookstores. “I’m concerned about the survival of independent bookstores, which are at the heart of main streets across the country,” Patterson said. “I believe that books are essential. They make us kinder, more empathetic human beings. And they have the power to take us away — even momentarily — from feeling overwhelmed, anxious, and scared.”

Many stores issued pleas to their regular customers to  shop online or making donations.   Fortunately, communities love their bookstores. The GoFundMe for Hicklebee’s in San Jose (www.hicklebees.com), for example, saw 1,000 people give $80,000 in just over 24 hours. Hicklebees also partnered with the Santa Clara Office of Education to create a “Keep Kids Reading” book drive for hundreds of families in need.

Indy bookstore owners are nothing if not imaginative and adaptable. The 2020 mantra of Maureen Palacios, co-owner of Once Upon a Time Bookstore (www.shoponceuponatime.com) in Montrose, California, was

“Try Anything.” Her shop arranged FaceTime appointments with staff who would take customers on a virtual tour of the shop and help them select books. They also made some popular videos featuring their stuffed toys. Other shops persuaded well-known authors, who normally command a fee for an appearance, to do free virtual author visits. Many other activities, such as book clubs and classes, were more or less convertible to online.

Of course every independent bookstore had to up its online ordering business to keep going. Many shops went from being gathering places to feeling more like fulfillment and shipping warehouses, with maybe some curbside pick-up sales. Yet here bookshops caught a break. Amazon, called upon to ship increasing volume of goods during the pandemic, decided books were not essential items and gave them lower priority. This probably tells you all you need to know about them as a bookseller. Books were still cheaper from Amazon, but no longer could you count on them being delivered in a couple of days. Who knew? It might be a couple of weeks or more.

Aha, an opportunity! Many shops had already taken to delivering to the door locally, but now they had an edge. Jim Morgan of The Curious Reader (www.curiousreaderbooks.com) in Glen Rock, New Jersey, has sometimes spent 2 hrs. on the road. He tells customers: “If you order from us and we have it in stock, you’ll have it that afternoon.” That’s music to the ears of the mother of a restless 7-year-old weary of online school. Location, location. Some shop owners wondered if they weren’t spending more money on gas than they were making in sales. But they were often rewarded with thank you notes, snack bags, and cookies. And future loyal customers.

Then even independent shops started having trouble delivering specific titles in a timely way. A paper shortage developed, and many publishers started deceasing print runs and putting off publication dates.  So titles in demand
weren’t always easy to get. But book stores still had plenty of good books in stock. So some expanded and emphasized their book subscription services, choosing and mailing a couple of appropriate books each month for all reader levels. Eyeseeme (www.eyeseeme.com) of University City Missouri’s selections are all under $25, and billing is monthly.

Hipocampo Children’s Books (www.hipocampochildrensbooks.com) of Rochester New York had only been in operation for a year when the shutdown hit. Fortunately, they had already built a loyal community following because of their unique mission. Owners Henry Padron and Pamela Baile stock children’s books in 14 languages, plus a small collection of adult books in Spanish and English. Of course with the shutdown, they could no longer host the dance lessons and cultural and folklore workshops they liked to hold on site.  But they were able to move some events to Facebook Live. And now that they have been allowed to open again, they have a clever way of assuring social distancing. They’ve taken out all the seating in the shop and placed hula hoops around the floor.

April 24, 2021 is National Independent Bookstore day. Let’s all celebrate this year by un-chaining ourselves. Amazon is going to thrive no matter what. To make a real difference, buy books in person or online from the folks who really know and care about books, and who create wonderful places for us to find the books we love. When you shop at an independent bookstore, you support a community. And in the long run, sales of carefully curated books at independent shops actually help to determine the quality of books that will get published.

Just looking for a huge selection of books where you’re likely to find almost any specific title you’re looking for in stock? You still don’t have to resort to the Big A. Go to Powell’s Books in Portland Oregon (www.powells.com), the largest independent book store in the world. Powell’s offers a vast selection of new and used books both in its physical stores (they’re open now) and online.

Soon we’ll all be able  to enjoy our favorite bookstores in person.  Let’s support them now so they will still be there when we do go.  Want to locate an independent children’s bookstore near you or a new one to explore online?  Go to: indiebound.org/indie-store-finder.

Sue Cowing
Sue Cowing lives in Honolulu. She is the author of the middle-grade puppet-and-boy novel YOU WILL CALL ME DROG (Carolrhoda 2011, Usborne UK 2012).

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