Christine Greer is uniquely positioned to speak about the coronavirus: In addition to running Two Sisters Bookery in the Cotton Exchange, Greer works part-time as a hospice nurse. “Even as a nurse for 20-plus years, I’ve never seen anything like this,” she says. “As a business owner, I’m just as perplexed.”
In the past month, bookstore owners like Greer have watched as the world around them has come to a screeching halt. Major literary festivals around the world have been canceled or postponed; public libraries have closed. Authors who toiled for years have seen their books enter the world to little or no fanfare. Independent bookstores—considered by many the beating heart of the book industry—have been imperiled by self-isolation and social distancing.
To find out how residents can support Wilmington’s independent bookstores at this time, encore spoke with several area shop owners: Greer, Steve McAllister of McAllister & Solomon Used and Rare Books; Ben Motsinger of Memory Lane Comics; Gwenyfar Rohler of Old Books on Front St.; and Kathleen Jewell of Pomegranate Books.
Several area stores are currently able to sell books online. Two Sisters and Pomegranate Books have “Direct to Home” arrangements with distributor Ingram that allow them to ship books to anyone in the U.S. Used and rare book dealer McAllister & Solomon has shipped hundreds of thousands of books since it began selling online in 1994.
Still, other stores have struggled to digitize their collections. While Memory Lane Comics is working to put much of its inventory of comic books and graphic novels online as we speak, Old Books on Front Street owner Gwenyfar Rohler says translating the used bookstore experience to digital is harder than it may seem; as a downtown merchant, she depends on foot traffic for the bulk of her business.
“We are really a place people come and spend an hour and a half or two hours, which is exactly the opposite of what you want anybody doing right now,” Rohler says.
Instead, she suggests purchasing a gift card—a sentiment echoed by her fellow owners. All stores currently offer physical gift certificates, which can be delivered or held at the store until readers can pick them up. In addition, Rohler offers gift certificates for her Between the Covers B&B and Top Shelf Literary Loft—ancillary businesses that support Old Books and help pay employee salaries (both businesses, as well as the Literary History Walking Tour, are currently on hiatus).
PULL UP TO THE CURB
Along with online sales, most bookstores are offering curbside delivery for those wanting a more personal touch. Old Books offers board games and puzzles, in addition to its usual trove of paperbacks. Rohler will happily take phone orders and payments, and drop off books on customers’ doorsteps, if they wish.
Memory Lane Comics co-owner Ben Motsinger is keeping his store open under restricted hours (11 a.m. – 5:30 p.m., curbside until 7 p.m.), but understands shoppers practicing social distancing may not want to expose themselves to risk.
“Just give us a call and let us know what shows/movies/music/comics you like so we can find something to fit your tastes, and bring it out to you!” he says.
SPREAD THE WORD
Folks who can’t frequent their favorite bookstores right now can show some love for them on social media. That’s just what Dennis Johnson (@MobyLives), founder of independent publishing powerhouse Melville House, did when he asked followers to shout out their favorite indie bookstores on Twitter last week. Many in our community are eager to purchase books, but may not know the wealth of options they have at their fingertips.
Virtual book club that meet over FaceTime or Zoom are a great option now, too. Independent bookstores love working with book clubs to provide full sets of books, and can even help facilitate guest appearances by local or regional authors—something online behemoths like Amazon wouldn’t dream of doing.
“The only thing I’d ask is, if you are spending money, please, let’s keep it in the community,” Greer says. “Jeff Bezos will survive. There are many small businesses who will not without local support.”
As with many small businesses, most independent bookstores are tiny operations with few employees working for modest wages. Many businesses, already burdened by Hurricane Florence, find themselves unable or unwilling to take on further loans. Three of the bookstores encore spoke with already have made the difficult decision to lay off workers—many of whom will now rely on unemployment benefits to pay their bills. And those decisions weigh heavily on the owners. Says Rohler, “My idea of responsibility to [my employees] is very real, and that is upsetting me so much I can’t even put it into words.”
With such stresses, a kind word can go a long way.
Still, Wilmington’s independent bookstores remain resolute. As a rare books dealer, Wilmington native Steve McAllister works alone most days with his dog Monkey. He says he’s grown used to adversity.
“We’ve been open since June 1993 and have weathered the e-book revolution, e-commerce, several recessions, massive damage due to hurricanes, and the headwinds of any small business.”
McAllister’s great-great-grandfather even contracted yellow fever while piloting a blockade runner in 1862. He also lived to tell about it. “Our area recovered from that and many other disasters, and we’ll [recover from this,] too,” he says.
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