Indie booksellers turn virtual in response to pandemic

Angel Dobrow bags a purchase at Zenith Bookstore.
Angel Dobrow bags a purchase at Zenith Bookstore, the shop she co-owns with her husband Bob Dobrow in Duluth in December 2019. Amid the COVID-19 pandemic, they closed the store to browsers in March but have seen a ten-fold increase in online sales.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2019

Coronavirus restrictions now have independent bookstores caught in an agonizing situation: Just when there's a huge audience looking for something to read, they've had to close their doors.

Many have found creative ways of dealing with the challenge, as Minneapolis writer Kawai Strong Washburn has found.

Just days after publication of Washburn’s debut novel “Sharks in the Time of Saviors,” a planned book tour fell victim to the coronavirus restrictions.

Kawai Strong Washburn’s novel “Sharks in the Time of Saviors”
Kawai Strong Washburn’s novel “Sharks in the Time of Saviors” is the subject of Next Chapter Booksellers' first virtual reading.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

One of the canceled dates was scheduled for Monday at Next Chapter Booksellers in St Paul.

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That saddened the store's event manager Riley Jay Davis.

"I think books are really important for our self-care right now," Davis said. "And honestly, it's very beautifully written."

Kawai Strong Washburn talks to Euan Kerr about his new novel
by Euan Kerr | MPR News

So, that's why Next Chapter decided to hold its first virtual reading featuring Washburn in conversation with Booker Prize-winning novelist Marlon James. Readers can participate on their digital devices.

Such events are among the things bookshops are doing both to serve customers hungry for reading material and keep themselves afloat.

A couple pose for a photo in a bookstore.
Angel and Bob Dobrow, who own Zenith Bookstore in Duluth together.
Dan Kraker | MPR News 2019

Bob Dobrow, who co-owns Zenith Bookstore in Duluth, said his business has changed in so many ways in recent weeks.

"Our online sales have increased by a factor of 10 or more," he said.

Dobrow said Zenith closed the store to browsers in mid-March, long before the governor's first stay-at-home order went into effect on March 25. Sensing people would want books, but little contact, they began offering curbside pickup in the parking spaces beside their building. They also set up a free bookshelf out front, where people could help themselves. But it was a social distancing failure, so they switched that up, too.

"We have told people that we will make a care package, so if you call in and if you are in need and you would like us to send you a care package with some free books, or pick them up, we can do that," he said.

Now, Zenith is planning virtual story time for younger readers, and a virtual book club for adults.

In Minneapolis, Once Upon A Crime Mystery Books owner Meg King Abraham has already hosted a couple of virtual readings. She said early on some customers were clearly planning ahead as they placed orders for several titles by a single author. She is grateful for the support, but said bookselling is a precarious business and the loss of in-person readings hurts.

"We sometimes have large author events, that will generate a few thousand dollars for us," she said, "so like enough to cover rent for the month."

She said some local authors have signed copies for sale during virtual readings. She said the virtual audiences are larger and from a wider geographic range than for in-person readings. However, she says the virtual events don't replace larger sales at the live readings.

She thinks Once Upon a Crime will survive the pandemic, but only because it has some financial reserves.

At Next Chapter Books, Riley Jay Davis believes all independent bookstores are trying to make the adjustments which will ensure they survive. Davis also sees a possible future for virtual bookstore events, even after COVID-19 wanes.

"Hopefully this will just, like, increase our participation," said Davis. "And maybe, we will keep virtual events a thing even after we are able to do in-store events again."

Kawai Strong Washburn reads from "Sharks in the Time of Saviors"
by MPR News

And what of Kawai Strong Washburn? He worked on "Sharks in the Time of Saviors" for a decade, only to experience the bite of a pandemic publication. Remarkably, he's not worried.

"People that are going to be interested in this book, maybe they find it a year from now instead of a week from now, or whatever," he said. "You know books have a long life. There's no expiration date on a book."