For Local Bookstores, The Next Chapter In The Pandemic Is Survival

Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

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When Joel Sheldon, the CEO of Vroman's Bookstore, announced on September 28 that after more than 100 years in business, the venerable Pasadena shop might have to close its doors, fans were aghast. How could Southern California lose this institution? They had done everything right — adding a wine bar, a coffee shop, holding free classes and readings for the community, diversifying and reaching out in so many creative ways.

Issuing a plea for support via email and Twitter, Sheldon urged customers: "Please come and shop with us soon. Now. Unless we build our sales... we will have a very difficult time surviving."

And people did. The day after Vroman's set off its distress signal, its online store received more than 1,000 orders — the highest one-day total in its history.

A sign outside Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena notes the support it received from customers. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

While the show of support has saved Vroman's, at least for now, the store needs to keep the momentum going through the end of the year to keep its doors open. Other local bookstores are also struggling.

In the last decade, brick-and-mortar bookstores have been hurt by online retailers, including Amazon, which can sell books for lower prices and a few clicks. In recent years, the number of independent bookstore has been growing, according to a Statista survey looking at the decade from 2009 to 2019. But the coronavirus pandemic, with its ever-changing rules for businesses and the associated economic downturn, has been another major blow to indie booksellers whose effects we're only just beginning to see.

The Book Rack in Arcadia: Owner Karen Kropp works at the store (left); books on the rack (right). (Giuliana Mayo/LAist)

The Book Rack opened in 1982 in Arcadia. In late July, it launched a GoFundMe campaign to try to stay open. Longtime employee Mina Kasama, who began working there nine years ago while attending nearby Arcadia High School, set it up.

"I wanted her [the owner, Karen Kropp] to know that the community cares about her and that we'd miss her if she was gone," Kasama says. "I joke that she's my surrogate grandmother. We've known each other for almost 10 years and she has watched me grow up. It's one of those things that I felt needed to be done."

Cheri Cabot, who says she ends up shopping there every two weeks, comes because she likes the books Kropp chooses and she appreciates the personal touch.

"Karen always knows what kind of books her customers like. She'll say, 'I have a book I know you'd like,' and she's put it aside for you... I listen to audiobooks, I order books online, too, but it's not the same," Cabot says.

James Fugate, co-owner of Eso Won Books in Leimert Park, works at his store during the pandemic. (Somerset New-Stein for LAist)

In Leimert Park, James Fugate, who co-owns Eso Won Books, says the store faced tough times at the start of the pandemic. Sales plummeted by 70%. In March, he shut the store down. Then, the killing of George Floyd led to a call to support Black-owned bookstores. Customers flocked to Eso Won looking for books on anti-racism.

He reopened in the middle of May with a strict four-person limit on shoppers and now frequently has a small line out the door, with musicians playing outside and Miles Davis on the speakers indoors. Fugate is pleased the community showed up for his store and he hopes they'll support other independent booksellers.

"L.A. really supports bookstores, and I think maybe hearing about Vroman's, maybe hearing about Book Soup, will make people realize that they have to support them and not go to Amazon," Fugate says.

An employee wearing a mask works at Chevalier's, a bookstore on Larchmont Ave. (Somerset New-Stein for LAist)

In early 2020, Chevalier's, a Larchmont Village mainstay for almost 80 years, was on track for its best year ever. Instead, it saw a 50% decrease in sales when most L.A. County business were ordered to close at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Manager Theresa Phung explains that some of the lost revenue was due to cancelled in-person events, which drive sales, but online competitors had been taking a bite out of their business for years.

"Obviously, every indie bookstore's biggest competitor is Amazon.com. And, of course, we understand that when you shop there, you save money. But the service that we provide a community is not just a product, it's not just a book," Phung says.

Skylight Books in Los Feliz. (Somerset New-Stein for LAist)

Skylight Books in Los Feliz has also felt the loss of in-person programming.

"It's a really huge part of our identity to be part of the physical literary book community in Los Angeles," says Skylight general manager Mary Williams. "We have supplemented with some virtual events, which have been great, but we haven't been able to have those in-person interactions that we really thrive on."

Skylight secured a PPP loan this spring and that helped the store during two monts without sales, virtual or otherwise. A viral image of actor Chris Pine carrying a bag of merch out of Skylight (no word on what he bought) didn't hurt. But the future remains shaky.

"We certainly hope that we're going to be able to come through on the other side. I'm more optimistic now than I was in May, when the shutdown had just depleted half of our savings. It really comes down to the holidays. If people shop here for the holidays, as opposed to going to a chain store or Amazon, that's going to be the difference for us," Williams says.

A customer shops at Vroman's Bookstore in Pasadena. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Across the board, Southern California retailers have the same message: If you value your local bookstore, shop at it!

Most independent bookstores now offer online sales for people who don't want to come into the store and almost all of them provide contactless curbside pickup if you place an order online.

Author Janet Fitch, who says she was, before the pandemic, attending readings and literary discussions three or four times a week, mainly at Skylight and Vroman's but also at Stories and Diesel, has a word of warning for consumers.

"If you want these places to exist," she says, "you have to support them now. Because we all have these ideas of the places that we love and, you know, man, when they're gone, they're gone."

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