At Dial Bookshop in Chicago, Ill., things are relatively normal outside the use of masks, hand sanitizer and a plastic window at the checkout counter, owners Heidi Zhang and Peter Hopkins reported. The store is located in Chicago's Fine Arts Building, which Hopkins said gives them a "steady volume of foot traffic." Large groups, however, are still rare, and there aren't really any rush periods, so limited capacity has not been an issue.
Perhaps the biggest operational change, he continued, is the way that the store now acquires inventory. Dial Bookshop sells predominantly used books, and he and Zhang used to buy from large, annual used book sales in and around Chicago. All of those were canceled last year, so they've had to rely heavily on remainder wholesalers and special-ordering new titles instead.
The bookstore was closed between April and July, and since Dial Bookshop didn't have an online store, sales were extremely low during that time. Sales picked up after the store reopened, but overall sales in 2020 were far below the numbers from 2019.
Dial started a book-of-the-month subscription service while the store was closed, and Zhang and Hopkins were surprised by how many subscribers they got within the first month. It's grown pretty steadily since then, and they have books picked out through September 2021.
Looking ahead, they have no plans to resume events any time soon, and Hopkins expects that their primary concern this year will be finding more sources for good used books. Foot traffic has been increasing, he noted, but none of the used book sales have yet announced whether they'll return in 2021.
In Providence, R.I., Books on the Square continues to offer free local delivery two days per week and contactless pick-up, in addition to limited browsing, manager Jennifer Kandarian reported. They've been able to increase their in-store capacity, which has made a big difference now that families feel comfortable being together in public again.
Asked how the store fared last year, Kandarian answered that all-in-all things went "pretty well." Online business increased by 3,000% and the store introduced a lot of customers to the idea that they could order online from their local bookstore. Sidelines and sales of cards and stationery were "almost nonexistent" in 2020, Kandarian noted, but increased book sales made up for that.
The need to create social-distancing space in the store allowed Kandarian and the team to make some changes they hadn't thought of before. They moved and consolidated sections, removed a lot of the floor displays that were not contributing much and made a "method of flow" within sections. They've gotten a lot of positive feedback about the new layout, she added.
On the subject of her outlook for 2021, Kandarian said she's "absolutely optimistic but cautious." Sales have been strong, even though the beginning of the year tends to be a slow time, and people have really missed being able to browse. She is cautious, however, because of how horrible it was last year to return stacks of hot titles such as The Book of Lost Friends and the movie tie-in edition of The Woman in the Window. That experience, she remarked, will "haunt me for years."
She and the team have no plans in mind for things like resuming events or further expanding operations. She feels it's important to hold on until the store's staff and customers feel comfortable again, although it sometimes feels like it's been a lifetime since the store had crowds of kids for a storytime session.
Jill Stefanovich, owner of bbgb Books in Richmond, Va., reported that the store finally opened to walk-in customers on March 1. She and her team are still allowing customers to book appointments, which they've been doing since late September last year. The store is very small, so only one or two family groups are being allowed in at a time. Stefanovich said she knows her cautiousness has lost the store some customers, but "we aren't taking any chances. We don't expect this way of doing business to change anytime soon."
In 2020, store sales were down about 35%, but there were some surprising bright spots amid all of the difficulty, Stefanovich noted. Switching to online events allowed the store to expand its reach, and customers have joined from as far as California. The store's book fair business has also gone virtual, and it's now been able to partner with some new schools.
Increased phone calls and e-mails, meanwhile, have allowed the team to connect with more customers than normal. There was even a handwritten thank-you note from one customer saying he couldn't have survived Covid without the store. Stefanovich commented: "What more could you ask for?" --Alex Mutter