At Work I Loved My Job as a Bookseller—Then Covid-19 Transformed It
Every time I tell a customer that we’re not open for browsing, I know I am reminding them of how Covid-19 has disrupted our rhythms and routines, robbed us of numerous small pleasures.
The bright green numerals in the top right-hand corner of the computer screen that tracked incoming website orders kept climbing: 7, then 12, 29, 39, 65, 78. The phone rang every few minutes, and whoever picked it up strained to hear the customer over the squawk of clear plastic shipping tape being yanked from its dispenser and affixed to an outgoing package.
“Do we have any jigsaw puzzles left?”
“Maybe? I’ll check in the back.”
It was mid-March, and at the small independent bookstore where I work, we knew it was only a matter of time before we would be forced to close our doors and go home to wait out the coronavirus pandemic. We were already closed to the public, but members of our community, eager to help us stay afloat from the safety of their homes (and hungry for novels, picture books, and jigsaw puzzles to keep them entertained during the looming lockdown), flooded us with mail orders. We zipped frantically back and forth between the shelves and the store’s single desktop computer, processing orders, printing shipping labels, and packing books to be mailed out. My boss brought in several pump bottles of hand sanitizer, and we used them liberally. No one was wearing masks yet.
During my last shift before the shutdown, we dismantled our front window displays to prevent the afternoon sun from fading book covers we wouldn’t be there to swap out with new releases. After I clocked out, I stepped outside and turned back to take a photo of the glowing storefront in the chilly springtime dusk. I didn’t know exactly when I’d be returning, but I assumed my job would look and feel pretty much the same on the other side of the pandemic. Like so many forecasts that emerged during those early days of spring, this turned out to be a fantasy.
The next time I unlocked the bookstore’s front door, it was May. We were cautiously experimenting with curbside pickup after six weeks of sitting at home, watching online orders tick up, and directing customers to Bookshop.org for a faster turnaround. With New York City reporting roughly one thousand new Covid cases every day, the much-discussed curve was declining, but had not yet flattened. Twenty thousand New Yorkers had died.
For weeks, I worked entire shifts at the bookstore alone—something I’d never done before the pandemic. Customers scheduled appointments to pick up books they’d purchased online during lockdown, and I would gather up the books and set them on a folding TV tray outside our front door while the customer waited behind a chalk line on the sidewalk six feet away. Once in a while, I’d have to remind someone to step behind the line. But for the most part, people kept their distance, and many expressed relief that our small business had survived. On windy days, I would put our (empty) heavy ceramic water bowl for the neighborhood dogs on top of the flimsy tray table, to keep it from blowing over between pickups. Once, a customer dropped a five-dollar bill into it. “To buy yourself a coffee!” She shouted through the glass of the front window, smiling as she walked away with her new books.
Every day I apologize to frustrated customers who just want to shop like the pandemic is over.
In early June, New York began allowing retailers to offer in-store pickups. The bookstore became a bustling takeout operation. Instead of plastic clamshells filled with steaming lo mein or grease-speckled cardboard pizza boxes, our customers took home newly released hardcovers, stacks of kids’ summer reading assignments, and obscure special orders unearthed via our website’s search function. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder and the resulting wave of protests, we fulfilled dozens of orders for titles like How to Be an Antiracist , Me and White Supremacy , and So You Want to Talk About Race . Even though our revenue was down significantly compared to the previous June, my boss donated a portion of these sales to the Audre Lorde Project. It was a far cry from The Before Times, when we had invited customers to browse for as long as they wished, plucking books off shelves and tables to peruse the flap copy or flip through the pages. Now, we stacked prepaid orders on a table just inside the front door, labeled by customer name, alongside a bottle of hand sanitizer and a sign that asked them to please not touch anyone else’s books. Before, we had hosted book club meetings, author appearances, and other in-store events multiple days a week. Now, we broadcast book launches, author Q&As, and children’s storytime via our social media channels.
Our pandemic business model also truncated and flattened the interactions that were one of our most valuable differentiators as an indie bookstore, and one of the most rewarding parts of my job. Where we booksellers had once engaged customers in mutually enthusiastic dialogue about our favorite titles and authors, we were now mostly limited to “Are you here for a pickup?” followed by “Thank you, have a great day!” and occasionally, “Ooh, I just read that, it’s really good” as people quickly rotated in and out. But it was gratifying to see each day’s schedule booked solid with pickup appointments. Our community had rallied to support us, and we were still putting the books they loved in their hands—from a safe distance.
By the start of August, New York had entered the final phase of reopening, and people in our neighborhood were beyond tired of staying home. The state had given retail businesses the green light to reopen, but we were sticking with our pickup-by-appointment protocol. With limited staff, we simply did not have the capacity to monitor foot traffic, enforce mask-wearing and hand-sanitizing, and facilitate social distancing in our small store while managing all the other daily tasks required to keep the business running. And after functioning more like a warehouse than a retail shop for months, our store was in no shape for browsing: the display tables were overrun by orders waiting to be picked up, and many of the books on our shelves were reserved and unavailable for purchase by walk-in customers. Most importantly, my boss was deeply and stubbornly committed to minimizing the risk we booksellers were taking by coming to work—and with the number of Covid-19 cases rising nationwide, she was not ready to relax our precautions, even if it was legal.
But as other stores in the neighborhood resumed “business as usual” (or something close to it), customers grew impatient with our precautions. Despite prominent signage in our windows and updates on our website and social media, people walked in every day expecting to browse, and some scoffed or argued when we explained that we were still only open for pickup. Customers complained when books they purchased online weren’t ready to pick up right away, because we only had one computer (which was also our only cash register) and it took us twenty-four hours to process new orders. They asked what made us different from other local stores they visited that had already reopened for browsing. More than one customer proclaimed their desire to support an independent bookstore, then in the next breath threatened to take their business to Barnes & Noble or Amazon.
It’s now September, and every day I apologize to frustrated customers who just want to shop like the pandemic is over—even though more than 180,000 Americans have died of Covid-19, and cases are still on the rise in multiple states. Each time a customer berates me over the phone because they need a gift for a kid’s birthday party in two hours and don’t have time to order online, or demands a refund because the book they ordered two weeks ago hasn’t yet arrived in the mail (like many small businesses, we ship via USPS), or ignores the sign on the door and peels off their mask upon walking into our store, I feel a bitter pang. Where once I looked forward to helping readers find the perfect book for themselves or a loved one, now I dread being on the receiving end of interactions with customers who express palpable disdain for our store’s safety protocols.
But for every customer who complains, there are many more who put on their masks, pick up their books, and say thank you. A few have even commended us for our safety protocols. My partner recently pointed out a Reddit post asking which neighborhood businesses were practicing responsible pandemic precautions, and more than one user had praised the bookshop. On Independent Bookstore Day, we booksellers stationed ourselves on the sidewalk to make recommendations and take orders while customers perused the staff picks and book-themed gift displays in our windows. It felt almost like a normal summer Saturday—except that all of the customers wore masks, none of them came more than a few steps inside the store, and several of them told us, “We’re so glad you’re still here.”
For every customer who complains, there are more who put on their masks, pick up their books, and say thank you.
I, too, want the pandemic to be over. Every time I tell a disappointed customer that we’re not open for browsing, I know I am reminding them of how Covid-19 has disrupted our rhythms and routines, robbed us of numerous small pleasures and rituals that used to brighten our days. But I don’t know what precautions our customers are taking (or not taking) in their daily lives. I do know that some of my bookseller colleagues have high-risk family members, and that I don’t want to put their health and safety—or mine—in jeopardy just so a few more customers can get the buzzy new bestseller into their hands the day it hits our shelves.
Customers frequently ask when the store will reopen for browsing. We don’t have a real answer—maybe after a few more weeks of declining Covid cases. The city’s numbers look good, but will they spike again after public schools reopen and indoor dining resumes? Will colder weather lead to indoor gatherings that set off a second wave of the pandemic? The virus has subsided for the moment, but the uncertainty for small businesses like ours has not.
A few times a week, I notice neighborhood kids peering in through the bookstore’s front windows, their small palms pressed to the plate glass. The glare makes it hard for them to see anything past their own perplexed reflections. They don’t see me, but I know how they feel.