Behind Closed Doors: Bookselling During A Pandemic

ICYMI: BookPeople is now open for in-person shopping (yay!). But you might be wondering just what we were up to while our doors were closed to the public. We’re lucky to have Gina on the blog today with her own account of the bumpy road BookPeople took managing the COVID-19 crisis, juggling business models, and, eventually, striking the perfect balance to re-open safely to the public.

When BookPeople closed its doors we didn’t just shut out our customers, we shut out ourselves. We scrambled to brainstorm solutions, but I felt a tangible loss by not being able to be in the store. Just like books help us escape to other worlds, bookstores are their own little worlds to escape to with friends.

With our doors closed to customers, the first thing BookPeople tried was a curbside

No business model was too ambitious—we tried everything.

service with immediate pickup. An entirely new business model was created in a day and a half. Booksellers were stationed at phones to talk to customers in the parking lot, passed the information to another bookseller to collect the books across sections and run them to the register, transferred the call to the registers to take credit card info over the phone, and then the orders were taken out to the customer in the parking lot. It was organized chaos at its best and while it was frantic, it was working. But it was high pace, high stress—nothing we were ever trained for—and it definitely wasn’t sustainable.

I remember the email I got on March 20th that told us not to go into work the following day, that our doors were officially closed to staff. It was surreal. For a while it just felt like an extended weekend. “If this crisis continues past March 31st,” the email read. It didn’t process to any of us exactly how much would change over the upcoming months.

Everything was uncertain, but there was never a doubt that everything that could be done, was being done.

In just over a week, we received another email confirming that all employees would be receiving their full salary for a month. I was already doing the math on what my life would look like without paychecks, not even optimistic enough to consider a possibility of continued pay, but BookPeople never gave up on us.

We received email updates constantly about what the leadership team was trying to help the store and all of the staff. Our social media team, already a powerhouse, really shone brightly as suddenly all our bookselling opportunities fell onto their shoulders. We were sent links to advance reader copies of forthcoming titles to continue reading and reviewing, to keep us on our game. We moved to Bookshop and we were able to submit recommendation lists that we could share with our customers. Community donations were set up for our staff in an independent emergency fund. Everything was uncertain, but there was never a doubt that everything that could be done, was being done. We pushed forward.

socially distant stock signing with Lara Prescott.

On April 14th, we ran out of options and we had to confront that harsh word that everyone is all too familiar with now: furlough.

On April 22nd, a new solution was found. I can’t even imagine how tirelessly our leadership team worked to make this happen so quickly. Our furlough ended. A new business plan was in the works to bring a limited amount of people into the store to start selling our own books again instead of having to use Bookshop as the middleman. Our online orders for shipping and curbside pick-up started on May 3rd and continues today.

I was brought back in on May 31st and didn’t think much of it other than that I’m the type to stay busy and it was exciting to contribute to helping the store after I’d been helped so much. The first thing I saw when I walked in was a banner tied up that read Welcome Home. It was a little shocking to go from quarantine to a team of ten, and while we were all masked up and keeping our 6 feet of distance, it was easy to fall into a new normal. We caught up on what we’d all watched or read while we were gone. With no customers around, I realized just how sarcastic, endearingly obnoxious, and sincerely kind we all are to each other. (It’s telling that it was a culture shock when I started working here that my managers thanked me for working hard.) It really did feel like a homecoming. Instead of working

We missed hand selling all of our favorites to you.

across the store in different sections, it was a new energy for us all to be part of a production line assisting each other directly.

The community rallied behind us. We had pages and pages of orders waiting for us to fulfill. We were so backed up, our best estimate was at least a week before an order would be ready to be picked up. It was a wonderful problem to have. As with the rest of the world, there was a bitterness to our success. The flood of demand for books by Black authors and books about systemic racism was in direct response to violence. Our marketing team once again excelled, curating lists of recommendations—for adults, kids, and teens alike!—that would support Black creators. BookPeople made a promise to our staff and our community, “As time goes on, we will continue to identify more ways our bookstore can make a positive, lasting impact within our own business and in our community. The conversation does not end here. This is just the first step.”

I realized just how sarcastic, endearingly obnoxious, and sincerely kind we all are to each other.

I’m writing this on Thursday, August 2nd. Our soft open is on the horizon. It’s with a mix of anxiety and anticipation that I think about customers browsing our shelves again. There are so many new, wonderful books that I can’t wait to hand sell, but I can’t physically put a book in a customer’s hand with six feet of distance between us. It will be a new experience and one I hope we can all adjust to quickly so we can return to enjoying the sense of community BookPeople has created inside its doors.

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Perfecting the curbside pick-up. Just give us some space—6 ft., to be exact.

I stumbled into this store and found a home I didn’t even know I was looking for. It’s an experience I’m sure many of you share. Being part of the queer community in Texas, even in Austin, it’s always hit or miss whether a place will welcome me or not. Finding the LGBTQ+ sections secured my comfort and safety. Joining the team and being allowed to help shape those sections and support my community is something I’ll always be grateful to BookPeople for and I look forward to more booksellers experiencing the way their voices can be heard within our store. A diverse and compassionate staff is what allows us to support diverse and compassionate books and authors.

This isn’t over yet and with your continued love and support, we’re not going anywhere.

Despite all the ups and downs we’ve struggled through, I’ve been proud of everything we’ve done as a store and the commitments we’ve made to inclusivity and safety. There have been so many battles that this store has fought through lately. Some we won, some we’ve lost, and the war wages on, though our armor gets stronger every day. When we needed it most, your passion for supporting local sustained us. Get loud and keep it up! This isn’t over yet and with your continued love and support, we’re not going anywhere. We’ve missed you and we know that you’ve missed us too. We can’t wait to help you find new and exciting books for your shelves, and serve up Austin’s best caffeinated beverages at CoffeePeople.

We’re thrilled for you to join us now that our doors are once again open wide.

From all of us at BookPeople,

Welcome Home.

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Check out our new hours and in-store shopping guidelines before visiting us in-person. And remember that curbside pick-up is still available for any and all shoppers.

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