In late January, Hannah Harlow and her brother Sam Pfeifle purchased the Book Shop of Beverly Farms in Beverly, Mass., from previous owners Pamela Price and Lee Simonds Brown, who had owned and operated the store for more than 20 years. The store was closed for a couple of weeks for some renovation before reopening on February 7. The store was open for only about a month, recalled Pfeifle, before having to close because of the pandemic.
One of the first things that Pfeifle and Harlow did after buying the store was install Bookmanager. Initially, their only plan as far as e-commerce went was allowing customers to buy online and pick up in store. They had no intention of "doing any shipping," but that changed as soon as the shutdown began. They began shipping orders, offering curbside pick-up and doing local delivery, all of which are still available, while the store has reopened for browsing.
Only two parties are allowed in store at a time and masks are required, with hand sanitizer available at the front door. The limited capacity has not been an issue yet, Pfeifle said, but historically the store is extremely busy during the holidays, in some years doing a third of its revenue in December. With the pandemic making it difficult to handle a holiday rush, he and Harlow have been getting the word out that if customers want to shop in person for holiday gifts, they should try to schedule appointments as early as possible.
The store has been doing virtual holiday book fairs with several local schools, which have been "huge." Customers purchase books through the store's website, which Pfeifle and Harlow then drop off at the schools. The Book Shop of Beverly Farms has also been doing product swaps with some other local businesses, including a mask-maker, a florist's shop and a glass-blower. While these partnerships have not been as lucrative as the book fairs, they've proven to be a great way to find new customers who are already support local businesses.
When it came to ordering for the holidays, Pfeifle explained that they've been focusing on buying large quantities of books they know their community will like, rather than "following Times bestsellers." He noted that Harlow, who previously was executive director of marketing of general-interest books at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, has a "real skill" for finding those titles. They are still worried, however, about availability issues later in the season.
Pfeifle reported that e-commerce over the past week has "been amazing," and customers have been so supportive of the store throughout the pandemic. He added that while Bookmanager's upfront cost was a little "nervewracking," it has "paid off big" and they've been "really thankful" for it.
Courtney Flynn, vice-president and manager of Trident Booksellers & Cafe in Boston, Mass., reported that her store has been operating under a "new normal" since the summer. There is limited capacity for in-store browsing, and Trident is still offering curbside pick-up. Online orders continue to be a large part of the business, so operations have shifted to accommodate that. She added that while she and her team are "all pretty used to the new way of business," they are "always bracing" for another shutdown or new regulations.
The shift to online business came "hard and fast" in March, Flynn continued, but the store has since gotten a handle on online bookselling. The pandemic forced Flynn and her team to strengthen their online presence and figure out how to harness their website to drive sales. Now, their processes are much more efficient than they were earlier in the year.
When asked about any bright spots amid the pandemic, Flynn pointed to comments from customers about what the store means to them and how much they miss it. Those have been "buoys on some dark days," and she frequently tells people that they don't know how much those comments mean to the staff.
On the subject of holiday buying, Flynn said she was initially "a little erratic" when it came to orders. On some days she would feel confident and "beef up" a frontlist order, and on other days she would be more tentative and "go lighter." All in all, she was initially fairly conservative and has since been playing catch up by bumping up numbers and chasing titles that she ordered too lightly. She has been ordering in higher quantities in recent weeks and said she is feeling optimistic about the holidays.
Customers seem to have gotten the message about shopping early for the holidays, and Flynn pointed out that there have been no complaints this year about holiday items being put on display before Thanksgiving--usually she hears a "grumble or two" when that happens. The store has seen very strong sales for some bigger titles, and sidelines are moving nicely. She's already chasing a few out-of-stock titles, though, and is anticipating "a rough week or so before Christmas when a lot is out of stock." --Alex Mutter