Kathy Burnette, owner of Brain Lair Books in South Bend, Ind., said the wave of support she's seen over the past two weeks has been "crazy, exciting and overwhelming." She's received tons of e-mails and social media tags, her Instagram "exploded," donations picked up and orders have gone through the roof. She noted that while some of the most widely circulated antiracist reading lists are hosted on Bookshop, customers were still finding their way to her Indiecommerce site.
Despite all of that support, Burnette continued, certain aspects of the situation have been troubling. For one, it's obvious that people in her area were not ordering books from her before Amazon slowed down their book deliveries in the early days of the pandemic. And, she said, "buying books from me won't solve our country's racist issues." Her store's bestselling antiracist book is one written by a white woman, and while plenty of people are saying that's a good thing, she wonders what it really means and whether it will change anything.
Perhaps the best thing to come from this, Burnette added, has been personal. Before this she'd never referred to Brain Lair as a Black bookstore, explaining that, over time, her own racist thoughts had ingrained Black-owned to mean not good or secondhand. "But Jason Reynolds says 'words can illuminate or erase,' and the absence of 'Black' was erasing who I am. I think, for me, that's the so-called 'good thing' that's come from this--I can be me."
Although she's technically been able to reopen for several weeks, Burnette has decided to stay closed for browsing while continuing to do pick-up and delivery. She does it all herself, and in addition to another part-time job, she has all of the recent online orders still to process. She hasn't been buying much new inventory, and what she does have is hosted by Square and can be seen on her Facebook page. Pick-up consists of her putting customers' items in a bag with their name on it and leaving it on the porch after they make arrangements, and she does deliveries from Thursday to Saturday.
When asked about her community's stance on social distancing and wearing facemasks, Burnette said it's very mixed. There are a handful of places nearby that require masks, limit the number of people who enter and enforce social distancing, and those are the only places she visits. She criticized Indiana's reopening plan as "very unrealistic" and described her community as being "in a tiny pocket of more humane thinkers but we are surrounded by a state full of idiots."
In Rockville, Md., The Story House is both a pop-up bookstore with a location in the Dawson's Market grocery store and a mobile bookstore in a converted tourist trolley. Owner Debbie Cohen explained that because Dawson's is considered an essential business, the "book nook" in the grocery store never closed, and she's also done a lot of mail order and delivery of books. The book trolley, however, has not been out since the middle of March, and Cohen is uncertain when she'll be able to resume using it.
"It is a very small, confined space and really the antithesis of social distancing," she said. The spring is usually one of her busiest seasons, and she's had to cancel something like 25 book fairs and book events. Having the Book Nook open at Dawson's and seeing increased online sales have helped some, but she still "really took a hit with it." She's managed to do one online book fair via Bookshop and reported that it went well: "Nothing like the revenue from an in-person sale but not shabby."
A little over a month ago, Cohen began selling face masks, and the response has been tremendous. She started by putting a batch of 50 up for sale and they sold out in about two hours. She's been sewing those masks herself, with the help of two seamstresses. Recently, she's started selling masks wholesale that feature literary quotes and are made in a different style than the masks she's been making and selling herself. For the wholesale masks, she added, she's working with a small workshop in Compton, Calif., to print and sew those.
In response to the ongoing nationwide protests, Cohen has put together an anti-racism section at the front of the book nook, and as an individual she participated in a large local demonstration. She's been talking to Rockville's mayor about doing a city-wide read of Ibram X. Kendi's Stamped from the Beginning that would include both the adult and young adult versions of the book, but that is still very early in the planning stage.
DL Mullen, owner of Semicolon Bookstore & Gallery in Chicago, Ill., reported that she and her team have definitely appreciated the recent surge of support. Things have been very busy, but it's been worthwhile to meet so many new customers. She and her staff have taken part in the ongoing protests, she said, but she hasn't made any kind of official statement because "our mere existence, mission and work for the community should make it clear what we stand for."
On June 3 she reopened her store for limited browsing. Semicolon is open for six hours each day, five days a week, and she and her staff are "loving it." Asked whether her community is amenable to things like wearing masks, Mullen said, "Absolutely. We haven't had any pushback from employees or customers, so I appreciate their interest in keeping one another safe." Her staff, meanwhile, is happy, eager and excited to be back at work.