Amazon has been shipping books to clients since 1995, but some independent bookstores have been operating for much longer than that in Wilmington.
“I don’t think [Amazon CEO] Jeff Bezos cares two figs for Wilmington, for the children who live here, or for the future of our community,” said Old Books on Front Street owner Gwenyfar Rohler. “But each one of the bookstore owners here do. We invest here and in the future of this community every day.”
Independent bookstores already were facing hardships before the coronavirus pandemic, especially because of the increase over the years in online book sales. Once the coronavirus pandemic hit, the situation became more dire.
Recently, a longtime fixture at The Cotton Exchange in downtown Wilmington, Two Sisters Bookery, closed permanently, though efforts to reach the owner to ask why the store closed were not successful.
Old Books closed temporarily to browsing for two months. McAllister & Solomon Used and Rare Books at 4402 Wrightsville Ave. in Wilmington also temporarily closed in March and reopened only last week.
“One of our part-time residents [and customers] who resides in New York state [half of the year] died of pneumonia,” said owner Steve McAllister. “That was about eight days after I had purchased a book collection from the family in town. We basically closed down immediately upon our notification.”
McAllister stopped purchasing books for the first time in 28 years. No matter the economic downturns and upturns, the bookstore always had customers calling to sell their collections of reads. COVID-19 laid down a different law: halt book buys, increase overhead.
Costs of COVID supplies became an itemized necessity, with the purchase of counter shields, hand sanitizer and cleaning supplies. It also took time to find a supplier who was carrying enough stock.
“I estimate it will cost a couple of hundred dollars for supplies a month,” McAllister said. “Our other monthly expenses will be roughly the same—except book-buying.”
At McAllister & Solomon, 30,000 books line the shelves in the 2,000-square-foot shop. McAllister had to make room for shoppers in a different manner.
“We removed half a dozen chairs, a couch, bookcases and pedestal displays to allow safe distancing,” he said.
So far he is seeing customers scoop up favorite authors, as well as history and philosophy books.
“The biggest area of sales for the first time ever is Black history books, especially from the ‘50s to ‘70s,” he said.
Yet, he also has fewer hours to make sales. McAllister & Solomon went from being open six days a week, eight hours a day, to five days a week, six hours a day.
Old Books also eased into different shopping hours upon reopening to the public Memorial Day weekend. At first it was only two days a week; now, they’re operating four days a week.
“We acknowledged that during COVID, our hours are going to be week-to-week,” Rohler says.
She hopes by Thanksgiving, they’ll be able to open longer. The last two months of the year are the busiest and can be a boon to help recoup sales.
“We are not even close to 50% of our gross sales for this time last year,” Rohler said.
They’ve also lost income from in-house products they create, such as bookmarks, coffee mugs, tote bags and other crafts.
“Everything takes longer to accomplish,” Rohler said.
She’s added loads of laundry (cleaning towels) to her daily routine, not to mention wiping down all surfaces after a single touch. She also wears latex gloves, which impairs the use of a computer, and removing labels and stickers from books.
After having to lay off eight staff members in the spring, she has hired back two so far. But they’re only working part-time as a door person.
“Yes, we’re a bookstore with a bouncer,” Rohler quipped.
The “bouncer” ensures only eight customers are in the store at a time, distributes hand sanitizer and makes sure everyone follows the mask mandate. They also wipe down doors and handle all curbside pickup.
While adjusting to new retail protocols is costly, it’s also emotionally burdensome for business owners. Rohler said the fear and frustration she faces daily takes its physical toll as she tries to make proper decisions for her business, staff, customers and family.
“And not being able to plan is immensely frustrating, [especially to] get ready for the holiday season,” she says. “Will we even have a holiday retail season? Will my family still be healthy, alive? Will the staff?”
Kathleen Jewell at Pomegranate Books, 4418 Park Ave. in Wilmington, has not hired back any employees, yet. Though she only had one part-timer, it’s been rough taking on all the tasks herself until she hopefully brings him back this fall.
“Ordering, receiving, shelving, bookkeeping, customer service, social media, arranging shipping and curbside,” she listed. “Also the scarcity of people.”
Despite being down 30% in sales for the year, the lack of camaraderie is also jarring for Jewell. She credits the bookstore for being a community hub where people congregate and share ideas. Book clubs frequent it, too, all of which have gone virtual since COVID.
“The heart and soul of a bookstore are the people who walk through our doors,” she said. “A bookstore can act as a focal point for community connection, and it has been a great joy to see individuals and groups come together under our roof.”
Pomegranate has switched in-person readings to virtual as well. Recently, they hosted the launch of local UNCW professor David Gessner’s new book, Leave It As It Is: A Journey Through Theodore Roosevelt’s American Wilderness.
“David invited a Teddy Roosevelt impersonator to Zoom in from South Dakota, which was incredibly informative and fun,” Jewell said. It was successful for sales, too; Pomegranate shipped signed copies of the book from coast to coast.
Although no other virtual readings are scheduled, Jewell is making arrangements with more authors, should the need arise. “My hope is that we will be able to host limited in-person events by year's end.”
Naturally, Rohler, McAllister and Jewell hope buying power from the community will continue to strengthen in coming months. Pomegranate and Old Books have e-commerce sites for folks who can’t shop in person.
“Even something small, like a greeting card or gift card makes a difference,” Jewell said. “Make a pledge to make a portion of your online purchases with us.”
Following the businesses on social media and promoting them to friends and family is a big help nowadays as well.
"We are not just the wallpaper that looks pretty when you drive down the street,” Rohler says. “We need for all those pictures that people take here to get tagged on social media. . . . I think we are at a point where we need to ask ourselves, ‘What do we value in our community?’ Walking up and down Front Street right now, I feel that question intensely. At the core of it, we need sales in order to survive, but we also need to be in people’s thoughts and conversations.”