Pittsburgh's Indie Bookstores Struggle To Stay Afloat During Pandemic

Apr 2, 2020

Independent bookstores have been an unexpected comeback story of the past decade. Since the 2008 recession, their numbers have grown nationally by about 50 percent, according to industry statistics – something most observers wouldn’t have predicted in the age of Amazon. Pittsburgh alone now has a dozen or more such bookshops.

Jill Yeomans and Adlai Yeomans owns White Whale Bookstore.
Credit Courtesy of White Whale Bookstore

But like many retail businesses, independent bookstores face an existential threat in the coronavirus shutdown. Pittsburgh bookstores’ brick-and-mortar homes all went dark no later than March 16, the date Gov. Tom Wolf ordered non-essential businesses to close; the order was recently extended through April.

While roughly half of all U.S. book sales happen online, a majority of actual bookstores do most of their business in person. Now – like stores all over the country, including iconic names like Powell’s and the Strand -- most of them are carrying on with online sales, greatly reduced revenue, and, in some cases, layoffs.

“We’re all doing things online and we really need people’s help right now,” said Eric Ackland, who owns Amazing Books & Records, with locations downtown and in Squirrel Hill. Ackland said that despite increased online sales, revenues since the shutdown have been about one-third of what they’d normally be. Worried about making rent, he laid off all five of his staffers before hiring one back part-time to help fill online orders. He said online sales, which had previously made up just 25 percent of his business, had risen 50 percent.

As with any good literary narrative, there’s some irony here: Many Americans, at least judging by their social-media feeds, are spending their quarantines with books. “People seem to be reading a ton,” said Jill Yeomans, co-owner of White Whale Bookstore, in Bloomfield. “We’ve seen them buying more and more books, and they tell us they’re just going through them.”

"We really need people's help right now"

As of Tuesday, White Whale hadn’t laid off any staff. But while its online sales have risen, it hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for lost revenue from canceled events. Half of the shop’s sales occur at in-person gatherings, from its own in-store readings to talks hosted by Pittsburgh Arts & Lectures. Yeomans recalled that just three weeks ago, it served book-buyers in an audience of about 1,500 who’d come to Carnegie Music Hall, in Oakland, to hear Canadian novelist Esi Edugyan. The store had nearly 60 events scheduled in March and April, and now all of them after March 16 have been canceled.

“It’s already been completely devastating for our business,” Yeomans said, speaking just 11 days after the shutdown.

Despite its own jump in online business, Sewickley’s 90-year-old Penguin Bookshop has seen sales plummet by 50 percent, said owner Susan Hans O’Connor. “There are some days where I think, ‘Oh my gosh, I feel just paralyzed I’m not sure what to do next,’” said O’Connor.

"It's already been completely devastating for our business"

Small shops handle online sales in a variety of ways. After shutting White Whale's Liberty Avenue storefront, Yeomans and her husband, Adlai, boxed up a few hundred books and drove them to their house in Point Breeze, where they have a scale and access to stamps.com to fill online orders. (Mostly, they brought along White Whale’s own best-sellers, front-of-store-table titles like Hilary Mantel’s “The Mirror and the Light” and local novelist Claire Beam’s “The Illness Lesson.”)

Most indie bookshops don’t have the room to keep a huge inventory on hand. For orders of books not in stock, many in Pittsburgh rely on Ingram Publishing Services, an international distributor with a big warehouse in Chambersburg, in central Pennsylvania. To date, the distributor has been classified as a life-sustaining business by the commonwealth and continues to function.

While roughly half of all U.S. book sales happen online, a majority of actual bookstores do most of their business in person

A growing number of stores have also turned to bookshop.org, a new online store created to support indie shops – and as a competitor to Amazon, which still rules the online market. Bookshop.org lets each visitor choose a store to shop through. Then that store gets a 25 percent commission on any sales (the figure has been temporarily raised to 30 percent to help stores during the pandemic). The site’s affiliate stores also receive a cut of its pool consisting of 10 percent of total sales.

It all works out to less than the cut of 40 percent or more White Whale would receive when shipping from Ingram, direct from publishers, or from its own stock. But Yeomans said it gives the store access to an online audience it wouldn’t otherwise have.

City Books, on the North Side, is among those shuttered.
Credit Photo by Bill O'Driscoll / 90.5 WESA

(Libro.fm provides a similar service for independent stores for audio-book sales.)

Indie stores are also offering discounts for online orders, free shipping, and other special services.

At Amazing Books – most of whose 60,000-book inventory is not itemized online -- Ackland will select books for customers based on authors or subjects they favor. “It’s very time-consuming,” he said. But it’s proved popular enough to earn him 20 to 40 orders a day. Ackland’s other financial coping strategies include working with his landlords and spending his tax refund to keep things afloat; as of Tuesday, he said he can last two more months of a shutdown.

A couple stores, however, aren’t operating online at all. Arlan Hess, who owns City Books, on the North Side, said she wasn’t set up to process online orders. (“Believe me, when this is over, I’m gonna do that!”)

She had successfully marketed books to local buyers via Instagram, delivering them personally. She suspended that service during the quarantine – she’s doing her best to stay at home – but came up with a novel scheme involving her product called Blind Date With a Book: a paperback wrapped in brown paper and sold sight unseen. (Most titles are classics like “Huckleberry Finn” or “Anna Karenina.”) Hess teamed with a local maker of banned-book-themed candles and a Chicago-based tea-blender to sell mail-order care packages through Etsy. The first batch of 25, posted last week, went quickly. “Not even 24 hours,” she said. “We’ve sold out and had to start a second batch.”

"I don't see how we'll survive this"

Dan Iddings, owner of Classic Lines, in Squirrel Hill, said he didn't sell online because his customers never seemed interested. Now he’s gone from moving about 250 or more books a week to a small fraction of that, all by phone and email orders.

“The situation is bad. It’s dire,” he said this past Tuesday. “I don’t see how we’ll survive this.” He sounded rueful about failing to operate online: “If I knew then what I know now.” He said he planned to start a GoFundMe campaign to save the store.

What are Pittsburghers reading during quarantine? Even at Mystery Lovers Bookstore, in Oakmont, it’s not all mysteries.

“We have a lot of people ordering children’s books as well, with all the kids being home, they’re looking for ways to occupy their time,” says co-owner Kristy Bodnar. “Puzzles as well. We’re joking that puzzles are one of the only things as popular as toilet paper. We just can’t keep them in stock.”

“People are looking for something lighter to help them escape, and fantasy and sci-fi,” said O’Connor, of Penguin Bookshop.

Others prefer a different flavor of quarantine comfort.

"Our customer base supports us because they want to physically come into our store"

“I have seen, which I think is a little strange, … an uptick in copies of ‘The Plague,’ of ‘Decameron,’ and ‘Journal of a Plague Year,’ by Dafoe,” said Lesley Rains, who manages City of Asylum bookstore, on the North Side. “I don’t judge, whatever you gotta do to cope!”

Still, patrons – and booksellers too -- are missing one thing you can’t get online: face-to-face interaction.

“Our customer base supports us because they want to physically come into our store generally, talk to us, get recommendations from our booksellers, and be able to have that in person bookstore experience,” said White Whale’s Yeomans.

Bodnar said the effects of social distancing seem strongest among the longtime regulars at Mystery Lovers, some of whom have been stopping in weekly since the store was founded, 30 years ago.

“We’ve noticed some people are calling and they’re placing orders but we’ll spend another 15 to 20 minutes just talking to them on the phone, because not only are we not interacting with people, but they’re not either,” she said. “They like hearing a familiar voice and someone to speak to.”

Yeomans says White Whale, too, feels the love from fans, especially when it posts on social media: “Each time we’ve given an update we’ve seen sort of a big rush of orders come through either on our personal web site or on our affiliate sites. And that’s felt really good!”

Bookstores have weathered economic storms before – Penguin Bookshop, after all, was founded the very month of the 1929 stock-market crash that signaled the start of the Great Depression. But store owners emphasize they can’t survive without a lot of material help from customers.

“If you want bookstores in your neighborhoods, you’ve really gotta buy from your local bookstores,” said Ackland.