Survival of the independent bookstore

Porter Square Books is pictured. Courtesy Porter Square Books

Independent bookstores, like most small local shops, faced an increased challenge because of COVID-19. Many independent bookstores rely on local foot traffic and events to bring people into the store and stay open, so they had to find new ways to reach customers and engage their communities.

Bookstores turned to phone and online orders, curbside pickup and gift cards in order to keep their businesses going. Porter Square Books in Cambridge, Brookline Booksmith in Brookline and Harvard Bookstore in Cambridge all shut down and turned their focus to online and phone orders. All of these stores are now open to in-person browsing with reduced hours and limited capacity. 

Used and rare bookstores, like Rodney’s Bookstore in Cambridge, Brattle Book Shop in Boston and Raven Used Books in Cambridge had to adapt in different ways because of the reality of their inventory. 

With used and rare bookstores, the stock does not include many copies of a singular title. This means they might have a lot of books, but only one copy of many of them — making an online storefront very difficult.

For Rodney’s, after 21 years in its Central Square location, it is now moving to a new space. It will stay open through the end of October and then move locations.

Some of these stores, like Brattle Book Shop, have online contact forms that customers can fill out so they can acquire the books that the customer wants. Stores also use platforms like eBay and Biblio.com to sell books instead of creating an online storefront of their own. 

Unique situations forced even more business creativity. Trident Booksellers & Cafe also sells a full menu of food and drinks in addition to selling books, causing the store to have to almost run two businesses at once — retail books and a kitchen. After following state guidelines, they opened the bookstore and patio dining in mid-June. They have done virtual browsing videos of their inventory that anyone could access through their social media and had takeout orders for their food.  

Frugal Bookstore in Roxbury provided curbside pickups, deliveries and mail orders during the pandemic but was close to shutting down in May, according to a Boston.com article

However, the store experienced incredible demand in June as Boston’s only Black-owned bookstore. It received thousands of orders in just a few days, mostly for the same few books, and then experienced backlash from customers for delays. Even with this backlash, the huge influx of orders and outpouring of support allowed Frugal Bookstore to stay open. It reopened to the public in mid-June for in-store browsing.

Bundles and book boxes were also used as an innovative way to engage readers and sell books during the pandemic. Porter Square Books is one store that sells book bundles that are hand-selected according to the customer’s preferences, offering a good way for someone to be connected with books they might find browsing while also being exposed to other titles they wouldn’t have thought to try. 

One bundle Porter Square Books has is the “Diversify Your Bookshelf” bundle which includes three fiction titles by people of color or woman-identifying authors. Dogtown Books in Gloucester has a similar book box called the “Rise Up Book Box” that sends you three books written by people of color; the proceeds are donated to the NAACP. 

Another large part of many bookstores is the events that they hold, bringing people into the space while creating a community feel. COVID-19 forced a lot of rescheduling and canceling, but many stores moved programming to an online platform. Author readings and talks were accessible throughout the pandemic — some free and others ticketed — and continue to be easy to access through any bookstore’s website. 

Some events coming up in the next month or so include: Carol Hay with Tiziana Dearing through Porter Square Books on Sept. 15; Desus & Mero, popular podcast hosts and authors of “God-Level Knowledge Darts,” through Brookline Booksmith on Sept. 19: and Deepak Chopra on his book “Total Meditation” through Harvard Bookstore on Oct. 1. Check each bookstore’s website to see information about other author events. 

One of the biggest annual book-related events in Boston is the Boston Book Festival (BBF). The BBF puts on events year-round, culminating in a multiday festival featuring author readings and talks, panels and fairs each fall.

This year’s festival will take place completely online between Oct. 5–25. The BBF continues to slowly release its speakers and programming. Its One City One Story winner, a Tufts alumna, was released earlier in the summer. The BBF announced its headliners in mid-August; presenters include Ayad Akhtar, Nicholas Kristof, Sheryl WuDunn, Michael Murphy, Guy Raz, Michael J. Sandel and Natasha Trethewey.

The BBF has also created additional programming fit for the moment we are in. There will be several relevant panels, including “Black Voters: Power and Promise” and “Elections: Is This the Best We Can Do?” The first features authors talking about voting behavior of Black Americans and the second includes authors who will reflect on elements of our political system like the electoral college and gerrymandering.

With so many local bookstores offering many ways to purchase their books, hosting free author events and with the BBF’s online festival, there is no reason to not expand your bookshelf or hop onto Zoom and listen to distinguished authors read and discuss their work, learning and opening your mind in the process. 




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