Longfellow Books in Portland's Monument Square reopened for in-person shopping two weeks ago, but owner Ari Gersen said he will not be opposed to closing again if necessary. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)
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In the midst of a pandemic that saw Amazon post its highest profit ever, local bookseller Clare Lygo had to get creative to continue making sales.

With no e-commerce site, Lygo, owner of The Book Review on Route 1 in Falmouth, found herself hand-delivering books to customers’ homes this spring. And with many loyal, elderly customers who have patronized the store for 40 years, she also loosened her payment methods.

“I couldn’t take credit cards, I didn’t have a swiper, so I said look, I know who you are, just send me a check,” she said. “And they were so grateful.”

Elizabeth Clemente/The Portland Phoenix
Clare Lygo, owner of The Book Review in Falmouth, said she is worried about the potential for an additional statewide retail shutdown. Her store typically makes 80 percent of its annual revenue in November and December. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Eight months into the coronavirus pandemic, Lygo’s story is not that unusual: business owners around the country have had to find flexible ways to earn profits.

Independent bookstores, however, are in a unique position.

On one hand, their existence is already threatened by Amazon. On the other, demand for books and puzzles that provide a nostalgic, connecting experience, has helped many survive the pandemic – at least for now. 

At Portland’s Print: A Bookstore, owners Josh Christie and Emily Russo said it was most important to keep all of their employees on the payroll, full time, with benefits. So far, they have been able to do so with online sales alone; Print has not opened its doors for in-person service since March.

“Things have been good,” Christie said last week. “I would say it varies week to week and month to month.”

He said sales are down compared to last year “somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 percent.”

Lygo said since she reopened in June after closing in March, her business has been up “10 to 20 percent” month over month compared to 2019 sales.

“But you have to remember I was closed for two months, so I’m never going make that back,” she said. “The year, as it stands, I’m definitely losing.”

At Longfellow Books in Portland’s Monument Square, owner Ari Gersen said his first couple of months being closed were more “on par” with his typical sales at that time of year.

But the absence of a usual “large soar in tourism traffic in July and August,” he said, hurt his business, along with the cancellation of cruise ships that usually bring extra business in autumn. 

“That’s kind of a large chunk of foot traffic through downtown Portland that just wasn’t there this year,” Gersen said.

He added his store’s “wonderful and loyal customers,” however, have been consistently purchasing books online for either shipping or curbside pickup. 

Elizabeth Clemente/The Portland Phoenix
Print: A Bookstore on Congress Street in Portland has been closed for in-person shopping since March. Owners Josh Christie and Emily Russo have been able to retain all of their staff full-time with benefits through online sales alone. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

The plight of independent booksellers made national headlines Oct. 23 when Strand Book Store, a New York City icon for 93 years, released a statement asking for support to stay open.

In a post to The Strand’s social media accounts, proprietor Nancy Bass Wyden said her store’s revenue had dropped 70 percent this year, and asked people to buy from her online to help make up for it.

Like Gersen, Wyden credited “a near complete loss of tourism,” foot traffic, and in-store events for the predicament, and said the business is “now at a turning point” where it is “unsustainable.”

The new normal

In Portland, Gersen opened Longfellow’s doors for in-person shopping two weeks ago for the first time in more than six months.

He reorganized his store’s shelves to allow maximum social distancing, and said although he experienced an “awful lot of anxiety and anticipation” about what it would be like to have customers in the store again, he has been impressed with how respectful everyone has been. 

Longfellow also has sanitizer at every register and workstation, and is limited to having 18 customers inside at once. Gersen said he “completely agrees” with state retail guidelines, and in “no way, shape or form” would want “60 people to wander around the store” right now.

He also said the safety of his staff is his first priority, and if at some point his team members do not feel safe he would close the store’s doors and find other ways to fill orders.

Elizabeth Clemente/The Portland Phoenix
Longfellow Books in Monument Square re-opened for in-person shopping two weeks ago, with a more socially distant operation. Only 18 shoppers are allowed in at one time.

Lygo’s greatest concern with virus cases on the rise in Maine is another potential shutdown coming during the holiday season. Eighty percent of The Book Review’s income is made during the last two months of the year.

During November and December, Lygo said, people who do not usually patronize her store come in to purchase gifts.

But the emergency public health guidelines have changed the typical shopping experience.

Due to coronavirus restrictions, she is only allowed to have eight customers in her 2,000-square-foot store at once. This prevents many people, such as parents shopping with young children, from coming in to casually browse and taking their time to shop.

“Often they want to sit with a book and read it to their kids,” Lygo said. “That’s going to be tough for us because they’re going to take three spots where somebody could be browsing.”

As a result, she is trying to find a way to retain in-person shoppers, even if they need to wait a little while to get into her store. She is considering implementing a text alert system, for instance, that would allow people to wait in their cars or shop nearby and be notified when they can enter The Book Review.

Likewise, Gersen said he is going to have to come up with “creative ways” to offer the store’s typical services, which he said will likely be “a lot more digital” than they have been in the past. Christie said his store has held nearly 100 virtual events since the beginning of the pandemic.

The Book Review does not have its own e-commerce site, which forced owner Clare Lygo to make deliveries to customers herself this spring. (Portland Phoenix/Elizabeth Clemente)

Gersen and Lygo also said consumers should try to do their holiday shopping early this year because many suppliers will likely be overwhelmed by mid-December with orders to ship.

All of the business owners also agreed independent booksellers do not have the option to be competitive about book pricing.

Gersen said while he could discount a book, he cannot raise prices. Attempting to compete with retail giants like Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or Books-A-Million for discounts, he said, is a “losing proposition.”

However, they all also said if it’s speed customers want, independent booksellers can usually order and have a book ready in a few days, which is competitive with Amazon.

Although Lygo does not have the ability to sell books from her own website, she does have a bookshop.org page that allows customers who would like to buy books from her to do so online without going through Amazon. According to its website, the third-party platform has generated more than $7 million for local bookstores.

The Book Review also uses Libro.fm, a similar initiative that allows people to buy audiobooks through their local bookstores instead of platforms like Amazon’s Audible.

Ultimately for Lygo, Gersen, and Christie, running a bookstore is about the love of reading. Lygo said she provides services national online retailers cannot, like recommending books she has read and loved herself. During the pandemic, for instance, people have mostly asked for uplifting stories to take their minds off the stress of the world.

“You do it for the love of books, you’re not going to get rich from it,” Lygo said. “You’re providing a service to your community, you’re helping kids read and love to read. And it’s so rewarding.”