(Bloomberg Opinion)—Margot Sage-El had been in business for two weeks at a new location near a train depot in a suburb of New York when the World Trade Center towers collapsed after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
“On the day of 9/11, people were walking off the train, stunned and covered in dust, and into my bookstore,” she recalls. “Some of them were people I knew, so there was a friendship. But I also think people came into the store because they were dazed and they were seeking other people out. It was beautiful to watch people connecting.”
“It was unbelievable,” she adds, letting the memory linger. “That’s the first time the world changed.”
Her world changed a second time earlier this year, when Covid-19 tightened its grip on the New York metropolitan area.
On March 13, Sage-El’s local school district in Montclair, New Jersey, locked down. She and her store, Watchung Booksellers, limped along the following week until March 21, when the state ordered all non-essential retailers to close their doors indefinitely. She never really closed, though, jumping on a surge in online orders from her website to essentially turn her operation into a small fulfillment warehouse. But she hasn’t fully reopened either. She recently began accepting visitors to her store by appointment, and handles sales through deliveries and back-door pickups. Although New Jersey has begun to ease retail restrictions, Sage-El remains awash in uncertainty.
“We never closed because I thought we’d never open again if I did,” she says, ticking off everything she’s overcome since becoming a bookseller in 1996, including the economic fallout from 9/11, the 2008 financial crisis, overwhelming competition from Amazon.com and the advent of e-books. “I feel like I’ve spent 24 years waiting for the shoe to drop. But in the last five years I really started to feel like ‘OK, as long as people want us we’ll be here for them and we can make it.’ And then the coronavirus happened.”
Sage-El isn’t alone. The pandemic has crushed independent booksellers across the country so ferociously, their futures are as precarious as they’ve ever been. There were about 1,887 independent book-selling companies running 2,524 stores nationwide in 2019, up from 1,401 booksellers running 1,651 stores a decade earlier, according to the American Booksellers Association. It’s hard to see how this growth spurt won’t be reversed now, given how many booksellers say they’re struggling to remain afloat. During the first few weeks of the corona-crisis alone, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that supports indies, received applications for emergency financial support from more than 670 booksellers.
Indies were fighting for their lives well before the coronavirus landed, of course. Big chains like Crown Books, Borders and Barnes & Noble dealt a first blow as they expanded in the 1980s and 1990s. Amazon, which opened its doors in 1995, ravaged the chains and independents alike. Today about two-thirds of all U.S. book sales occur online, almost entirely through Amazon. In addition to the convenience and speed that made Amazon formidable when it launched, the website had additional tools at its disposal that indies lacked. It could sell books at a loss to increase market share. It formed sales partnerships with other websites, sharing its wealth in a way that encouraged huge sections of the internet to steer book buyers toward its digital shelves. It created an e-book platform and reader, the Kindle, that made old-fashioned books with paper pages appear anachronistic. It also set up its own publishing arm. All this left indies seemingly overmatched.
And yet, and yet. Bookstores are cultural hubs in any community, central to the fabric of shared values and interests that make towns and cities vital. They lend character to a place and give residents and book lovers a sense of belonging. They often are as central to some people’s private lives as local houses of worship or their homes.
Indies also continue to play a crucial role in the book-selling business. While they don’t drive overall sales volume, they are pivotal in developing grassroots support for books that turn into bestsellers. The “Harry Potter” series, for example, didn’t take off until the fourth installment was published; prior to that, indies helped foster a cult following that turned the books into blockbusters.
Despite rumors of their demise in the Amazon era, indies have recently thrived. When a push to patronize local vendors emerged in recent years, small bookstores benefited. Guess what else happened? People wound up continuing to favor printed books over e-books. Sales of e-books actually fell about 37% from 2014 to 2018. There also is a large contingent of readers who don’t want cookie-cutter approaches to finding books; they often want choices tailored to the needs and interests of their communities. They rely on people like Sage-El.
Sage-El moved to Montclair from New York City, where she had been working in educational publishing, in 1990. Her husband is African-American, and when they began looking for books for children of color in 1994, they couldn’t find catalogs for them — one of Sage-El’s most memorable clues about systemic racism in the book industry. When she complained about this to a prominent catalog company, she was told that if she cared that much about it, she should start her own catalog business. So she did.
Two years later, she bought Watchung Booksellers. “I was so naïve and I had no idea what I was doing,” she says, noting that she had two partners when she started. “I thought this would be so nice. We would share everything, and each of us would work 20 hours a week. It quickly turned into 120 hours a week.”
Battling past Amazon was hard but she did it, nurturing a deep and eclectic inventory of books, holding events for children and featuring readings from authors. (I have read two of my books at Sage-El’s store.)
“When people came in we would talk to them. They came in not knowing what they wanted, so we would have a conversation and make a connection,” she says, explaining how she kept moving forward. “It was about buying a book, but it was also about much more than buying a book.”
Sage-El is inspired by what she sees happen in her bookstore during crises. After 9/11, she sold more atlases and books about the history of the Arab world. These days, amid the George Floyd and Black Lives Matter marches, she’s selling more books about racism and slavery.
“Readers who walk in here want to be informed and they want to be challenged. I think they’ve realized, ‘Oh, I’ve been skipping through things that matter, and I need to learn more.’ That’s what’s beautiful about books. It’s always a great privilege to meet readers’ needs and interests, especially in this town, and we’ve done well at that.”
When the pandemic hit, Sage-El was surprised to discover that local readers swarmed to her website to buy online from her directly. Some of that was loyalty, and some of it was due to Amazon pulling away from book sales. “Amazon had a slowdown on non-essential items and I think they thought books were non-essential,” she says. “That’s not who we are. We’ve always thought books were essential.”
Yet even with decades of success, Sage-El occupies a low-margin business worn to the bone by the pandemic. She said her revenue dropped 30-40% in April and May and expects it to plunge 50% in June. Online orders have helped offset the drop, but don’t make up for what she’s lost in in-store sales and her events business.
Other hurdles lie ahead. Companies like Bookshop.org have done extremely well during the pandemic by helping small bookstores with no online presence ramp up their sales, but Amazon will remain a daunting competitor. And bookstores tend to be small and often cramped, a potential deterrent for shoppers who will remain wary of infection even as lockdowns ease.
Sage-El said she’s still emerging from the “stunned phase” of the pandemic and hasn’t been able to figure out what, exactly, her store and her business will be on the other side of the crisis.
“People are asking themselves what they want to be when this is all over. What do we value? This community has said they want a bookstore to be here. And we’ve kept putting books in their hands,” she says. “For you to select a book, you need to know something about yourself or the person you’re buying it for. It’s an important, thoughtful, personal decision. And it can’t happen online in the way it happens in a bookstore. The magic of the bookstore is discovery.”