About a dozen people are browsing a wide selection of books. Some peeking at covers and spines; others are stopping to thumb and skim pages. A mother strolls through the aisles with three young children, each bundled in winter wear, each cradling a brightly-colored book.
The light around them is fading; the air is cooling.
It’s a Friday afternoon in late November, and Grassroots Books in Reno is seeing another strong day of foot traffic in the shopping area the bookstore added during the pandemic: its outside property.
“This is a great innovation here,” says owner Zoe Miller, standing in the roughly 5,000-square-foot area adjacent to the Grassroots building, which features 55 tables, spaced six feet apart, stacked with thousands of books. “We’ve needed to continue to pivot all the time; pivoting’s not really new for us. I said, let’s try doing it outside.”
Before the pandemic, every three weeks, Grassroots Books had a “warehouse sale,” offering thousands of selections for under $1. Those weeks, Miller said, Grassroots typically saw a 25% increase in sales.
When the store reopened at 50% capacity in mid-May, Miller took a page out of her “warehouse sales” strategy. She turned Grassroots’ fenced yard into an “outside sales” area, with upward of 10,000 available books available. And this sale happens every day. The expanded outdoor retail area also enables Grassroots to avoid maxing its capacity indoors.
As a result, Grassroots, which also sells second-hand movies and music, went from seeing its revenue drop by as much as 99% in March to seeing a sales jump of 10% in mid-August. That month, the store also launched an “instant home library” which gave about 1,500 local children the chance to select 50 books for free from its outside area.
“Thank goodness our customers help us out … we’re doing great now,” Miller said.
Since August, the store’s income has been slightly above last year’s revenue all but one three-week period (Oct. 19-Nov. 8), which Miller chalked up to a few rainy days.
To that end, the only time Grassroots doesn’t open its outside sales area to customers is when it’s raining or snowing, Miller said. Though winter is on the horizon, Miller noted that the cold and snow won’t stop the store from selling outdoors “in-between snowstorms.”
“Even when it snows, there’s still a lot of sunny days, so I plan to keep doing it all year,” she said. “We can do it because we have a fenced yard, which is very unusual, and we can do it because we’re in Reno, which has 90% sunny days.
“We’ve made something that doesn’t exist anywhere else. So it’s been a big deal for us to make this change.”
Miller is one of many independent bookstore owners across the country that has been forced to think outside the box (Miller took a literal approach to that metaphor) to cope with the COVID crisis.
Still, independent bookstores face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still slow, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt.
As of late October, according the American Booksellers Association, 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week.
All told, 20% of independent bookstores are in danger of folding, the ABA says.
‘We’ve been very fortunate’
One of those businesses still standing eight months into the pandemic is Sundance Books and Music near downtown Reno.
Owner Christine Kelly said the crisis has shown her there is a community of readers that wants the store to survive.
“It’s been really affirming, the amount of support that we’ve had from our customer base and community,” Kelly told the NNBW. “And just the amount of reading people are doing during these challenging times — we’ve been very fortunate. We’re nice and busy and things have sort of shifted how we operate and how sales are happening.”
While being shut down for two and a half months, Sundance, located inside the historic Levy Mansion, had to rely entirely on orders through its website.
Kelly said the store’s online ordering system stayed busy, whether from people wanting to help keep it afloat or simply desperate for something to read in quarantine. After all, the pandemic early on caused Amazon to prioritize essential goods over items like books, giving an edge to independent stores, Kelly pointed out.
“I think many independent bookstores saw an increase because we’re there and we could do it — we could turn those (online) orders around very quickly,” said Kelly, noting that some customers didn’t know Sundance did online orders until COVID. “And I think we’ve maintained or held on to some of that business.”
Kelly said Sundance’s online orders represented roughly 10% of their sales before the pandemic. Now, 20% of the store’s sales come from ecommerce. While Sundance’s year-over-year revenue is down, the store has seen “very healthy sales” throughout the crisis, Kelly said.
She added that their revenue during the holiday season, so far, is “on par” with what they would generate in a typical year.
“I think books and music have been things that people have relied heavily on during this time,” Kelly said. “And we are grateful. People are buying more books and music. You can only watch Netflix so many times.”
The future, of course, remains completely uncertain in the COVID era. Both Miller and Kelly are hopeful they will see strong sales continue through the holiday season, but neither could confidently forecast that will happen.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen in a week to two weeks,” Kelly said. “So, I’m taking one day at a time.”
Editor’s Note: The NNBW interviewed Grassroots Books and Sundance Books and Music before Gov. Steve Sisolak announced Nevada’s three-week “statewide pause” beginning Nov. 24. While many businesses were mandated to reduce capacity to 25%, retailers like Grassroots and Sundance were allowed to remain at 50%.