Within a few head-spinning days, life as we know it ground to a halt. For booksellers, this meant huge disruption – opening their doors became dangerous, even illegal. But it also meant opportunity. Many Canadians have more time on their hands – time to read – and children are desperate for activities.
Munro’s in Victoria is offering $5 flat-rate shipping across British Columbia. Winnipeg-based McNally Robinson and Vancouver Kidsbooks are among dozens of independent bookshops that introduced curbside pickup. Another was Toronto’s Type Books, which went from having virtually zero online-sales capability to moving to phone and e-mail orders only, with curbside pickup and its two co-owners driving around delivering books.
“I leave things on porches, I leave things in strollers, on the sidewalk, outside the door,” says co-owner Joanne Saul, who is making runs in her mother’s Hyundai Elantra. “I’m kind of like the Easter Bunny of books.”
Book deliveries are not unusual, of course. Amazon has long been leaving its ubiquitous A-to-Z logo boxes on doorsteps around the world.
But even that book behemoth has had to make adjustments. Add next-day book delivery to one of life’s little luxuries that is no longer guaranteed – even if you have a Prime account. And outside of Canada, some book deliveries have been deprioritized, period.
“This isn’t business as usual, and it’s a time of great stress and uncertainty. It’s also a moment in time when the work we’re doing is its most critical,” Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in an email to staff this week.
He went on to say the company had changed its processes to prioritize stocking and delivering of essential items – such as household and medical supplies – over others, including the product that started it all: books.
Unlike in the United States and the United Kingdom, in-bound book shipments are still being accepted by Amazon warehouses in Canada. For now, anyway.
Indigo, Canada’s other dominant book chain, has seen high activity in its online sales since closing stores on March 17, according to people in the publishing business. (Indigo declined an interview.)
Other mass retail options include big box stores such as Walmart, where people shopping for grocery staples can also pick up reading material.
“One of the heroes in all of this is Costco. Their clubs remain open and we’re seeing a lot of sales,” says Jamie Broadhurst, vice-president, marketing at Raincoast Books, a Vancouver-based distributor.
But it is from independent bookshops across the country that all kinds of feel-good stories are emerging. Customers are going out of their way to support them, telling local indies they would rather order books from them than Amazon and posting enthusiastic social media updates.
“We have a great following and they want to make sure to see us on the other side of this thing,” says Chris Hall, owner of McNally Robinson.
Still, these stories come with uncertain endings. People who work in publishing and book selling fear the landscape will look a lot different post-pandemic.
Ben McNally Books, which saw a huge decrease in foot traffic as people began working from home, initially began focusing on phone orders, but has now shut down altogether, citing health concerns.
“It was a sort of gradual and then more incremental decrease in business. And in fact towards the end it was mostly just people who have concern for our ongoing business who said look what can I do to keep you going?” McNally says.
Like others, he is worried about his store – which was already planning to move later this year.
“I’m concerned about the long-term health of my business, of course, because who knows where this is going. I think the fact that people are not taking it seriously may be extending the length that these restrictions go on.”
Munro’s in Victoria has already made “major, major cuts,” laying off about half of its staff. "I don’t want there to be any illusions that we’re just doing fine,” co-owner Jessica Walker says. The store relies heavily on cruise-ship traffic; a busy summer day, she says, can see as many as 10,000 passengers downtown. That will not be happening this year. “Right now I feel like our store will survive. But it will be a much smaller business and it will take a long time to recover.“
McNally Robinson is down to about 10 per cent of staff still working; the rest are on leaves of absence. Type has also laid off workers.
“Long-term viability? Oh God, I don’t know,” Saul says. “We are just hoping that we can see this through by being as creative as we possibly can.” One new offering is the $100 mystery bag: Tell Type what you like and dislike, and they will make selections for you.
At least one thing is certain: People are reading.
“While we’re all watching the news with great concern, I’ve found it incredibly heartening to see readers across the country embrace books and storytelling as solace,” wrote Kristin Cochrane, CEO of Penguin Random House Canada, in a letter sent to authors last week.
As for what people are buying, puzzles are hot right now, as are workbooks and activity books for children. “Suddenly parents are becoming homeschoolers whether we wanted to or not,” Broadhurst says. He adds that adult colouring books are “back in a massive way," and interest in titles dealing with mental health issues, especially anxiety, has also increased.
And, maybe more than ever, people are turning to books to try to lose themselves in a good story.
“I’m hopeful that people will still want to read and continue to want to escape and also connect in a good book,” Saul says.
“People recognize how incredibly vulnerable small businesses are and how people need to dig in and support local now more than ever. We always appreciate that people choose us rather than clicking a button, but now it’s even more gratifying.”
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