Josh Cook, marketing manager and co-owner of Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Mass., reported that as part of phase one of the state's reopening plan, the bookstore is now able to do curbside pickup but no customers are allowed in-store yet. There is a plan for phase two, but Porter Square Books will probably not allow browsing for a while, even after it becomes legally allowed, if the team feels that it can't ensure that shopping is a safe and relaxing experience for customers.
At present, Cook and the PSB staff have adjusted their workflow to allow for four booksellers working in the store at the same time, and it is unclear if they'll be able to increase that number or not. Whenever they do decide to open for browsing, they will make adjustments to reduce contact at the register and the POS system doesn't automatically print receipts. There will also be some bigger changes, like rearranging fixtures and displays to manage the flow of customers.
Overall, Cook said, the staff is doing pretty well, especially compared to stores that have had to lay off or furlough employees. Still, there have been some major challenges, such as working extremely hard to process online orders and being unable to socialize with customers and other booksellers.
Cook and his fellow booksellers have been experimenting with a variety of online events, especially those that help bring staff into the community. The store's first virtual event was Poetry Karaoke, where four booksellers read some of their favorite poems. Upcoming is a virtual version of the store's Grown Up Book Fair, which will feature booksellers recommending books for summer reading and answering readers' questions.
Cook said that prior to this past weekend, many of the store's bestsellers were books such as The Mirror and the Light by Hilary Mantel and The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson, and puzzles are finally starting to slow down a bit. But after the nationwide wave of protests that began last week in response to the murder of George Floyd, the store has seen an unprecedented surge in orders for all sorts of anti-racist books, with the majority of them now sold-out. Remarked Cook: "I've never seen anything like it."
In Houston, Tex., Blue Willow Bookshop reopened this week for limited browsing. Owner Valerie Koehler and her team prefer that shoppers make appointments, and though they are permitting walk-ins, they are allowing no more than three families in the store at a time. The store's credit card machines all now face the customers and the staff would prefer not to touch cash. All books that are handled but not purchased are "quarantined" until the next day, and there are no sample games or puzzles "available for little hands."
Koehler said her staff alternates between being very leery about people entering the shop and "just plain exhausted" with the amount of time it takes to process phone and online orders. She added that she is requiring all customers to wear masks, and she expects there to be some pushback because of this. Koehler did not reopen her store immediately once the governor of Texas lifted the state's stay-at-home order, and she and her team were told that they were being "uppity."
Blue Willow has been scheduling virtual events, with the store's book clubs meeting via Zoom and its weekly storytime on Facebook Live. The first virtual author event was a session with Elizabeth Wetmore, author of Valentine, and more are being scheduled for the summer. Cathy Berner, the store's children's/YA specialist and events coordinator, is working with partner schools to figure out what the fall will look like. Unfortunately, the store won't be able to hold its annual Tweens Read festival in person, but the steering committee is planning some online alternatives.
Many of the store's book group picks have been strong sellers, as have many nonfiction titles related to current events. As far as sidelines go, the store has sold "so many" jigsaw puzzles and keeps getting calls for more.
Bethany Beach Books in Bethany Beach, Del., also reopened on Monday, and events coordinator Zandria Senft reported that all customers and staff members are being required to wear facemasks. Hand sanitizer is available at the store's entrance, and Bethany Beach Books is operating at 30% capacity, meaning that no more than 21 customers at a time. There is signage everywhere reminding customers to practice social distancing, and whenever a customer uses a pen to sign a receipt, it is put aside to be sanitized at the end of the night.
Customers have been very eager to get back in the store and "actually see the books in person," Senft said. Both local customers and vacationers have shown the bookstore a lot of support, and she added that it's been great to see them in person again. For the most part, the Bethany Beach community is "very on board" with wearing facemasks and social distancing, as they are a necessity for reopening.
Bethany Beach is a popular resort town, Senft continued, and by this time in a normal summer it would have already started to fill up with people on vacation. With the ongoing pandemic, however, local businesses and year-round residents are not yet seeing that influx of visitors.
When asked about what's selling, Senft pointed to a few titles that the store "cannot seem to keep on the shelf," including Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens, Big Summer by Jennifer Weiner, All Adults Here by Emma Straub, Untamed by Glennon Doyle Melton and The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins.