When the state of Oregon issued its shutdown orders in March 2020 in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Scott Givens was forced to make some very difficult decisions very quickly.
Givens owns Browsers Bookstore, which has locations in both Albany and Corvallis, and he has longtime employees at both stores.
“In March, when everything shut down, I laid everyone off. I had to. It was terrible, one of the worst days of my life,” Givens said.
Nearly a year later, the situation has slowly improved. Givens has been able to bring employees back to work and his staffing levels are nearly back at their pre-pandemic levels. The entire experience, as painful as it has been, has shown the deep bond between local bookstores and their communities and created some new opportunities.
But surviving those first weeks of the quarantine before stores were allowed to open their doors again last May was very difficult. Givens operated both the Corvallis and Albany locations himself, spending part of every work day at each store. He spent hours pulling orders and making shipments to customers.
“I didn’t know what else to do. I told people, ‘Send me your lists, I will do your shopping for you.’ It became so time consuming to find six books that were $3 each, then call them in and do curbside. I’d spend half an hour to make $20,” Givens said. “I have never worked so hard in my life.”
Obadiah Baird, co-owner of The Book Bin in both Corvallis and Salem, echoed Givens’ experience.
“March 15, we went from the way we always operated to completely changing what we were doing, basically on the fly, within a day,” Baird said.
The Book Bin added curbside pickup and free delivery in both Corvallis and Salem.
“I’ve probably driven close to 1,000 books to people’s doors,” Baird said. “We’ve tried to meet our customers where they’re at.”
The Book Bin and Browsers are both established businesses and have deep roots in their communities. For Jay Nelson, co-owner of The Book Garden in Lebanon, the situation was very different. He and his mother, Janet, acquired their location at 2437 S. Santiam Highway, in August 2019 and opened their doors in December.
They had been open less than three months when the first shutdown occurred. Jay Nelson said business slowed to almost nothing during the first weeks of the shutdown, but in April they started to slowly add curbside customers.
“We’re into our second year now and despite the pandemic, we’re seeing better sales every month as the word gets out,” Nelson said. “December was a great month, January was even better. I’m hoping, for us, the word is still getting out that we’re a new bookstore and people are finding out they don’t have to go to Albany, Corvallis, even Portland.”
Nelson said one factor that helped his business early in the pandemic was that local libraries were closed. There weren’t many options for people to seek out books in person.
Nancy Cobb, a customer at Browsers in Albany, said the closure of libraries was a real loss for dedicated readers. She lives in rural Linn County and reading is one of her primary hobbies.
“We have no computer, no TV. We’re big readers,” Cobb said. “The libraries were closed, it was very disappointing. Scio opened for a short time. We started coming in here and picking up a few books.”
Cobb likes antique books and if the Browsers shop doesn’t have exactly what she wants, Givens helps her track it down.
Givens said there are three different types of booksellers. Some focus on new books, some on rare books, and others are more general, selling a mix of used and new books.
Givens said sellers of new and rare books have both fared very well. The boost hasn’t been as strong for general book shops such as Browsers. But he does believe that the limited options for personal entertainment during the pandemic has boosted the amount of time spent reading.
“Every day, someone comes in, ‘I’m reading more than I ever have. I’ve got nothing else to do,’” Givens said. “And so they’re buying more books. Sales actually have been strong. They’ve been good.”
Baird said there has never been any doubt that The Book Bin would survive the pandemic. In part, he said, that is because the business received funding from both rounds of the federal Paycheck Protection Program. That support helped the stores make it through the rough times.
“I’m not going to sugarcoat it, our sales are down and they’re down significantly,” Baird said.
While he is reluctant to call it a silver lining, he does see one positive result of the pandemic.
“In some ways, what has happened in the last year has been a wake-up call for people to realize that if they don’t come out and support places that they love in their community, there’s no guarantee they’re going to be there,” Baird said. “I think we’ve seen a lot of people doing that, coming through for us.”
Baird said local bookstores have been trying to spread that message for years. Now it feels like people are really starting to understand that it’s true.
“We’ve been talking about shopping local and supporting local for a long time now. For a long time, it felt like we were trying to paddle upstream with that message. It’s so easy to shop with Amazon,” Baird said.
Givens was worried that he would lose his younger customers during the pandemic. Because they are technologically savvy, he knew it would be easy for them to do their shopping online or simply spend their time in other ways.
But it has been his younger customers who have really stood out during the past year, he said.
“I feel like they are aware that if you don’t shop locally, your local businesses will go away,” Givens said. “This younger generation, they really get it.”
Nelson, who opened his shop long after the online retailers had been established, is confident there will always be a place for local bookstores.
“I think physical books will never go out of style,” Nelson said. “You want to have a book that you can put your hands on that might be there 50 years, 100 years. We have books here that are 100, 150 years old. As long as they don’t get wet, they hold up very well.”