Boston bookstores find ways to survive, thrive during pandemic

New book displays at Brookline Booksmith in Brookline, Massachusetts. Photo by Taylor Donnelly/BU News Service

By Taylor Donnelly
Boston University News Service

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, bookstores around Boston are changing in order to adapt to readers’ needs. 

Like many small businesses, bookstores have been affected by the pandemic. Forced to close their doors during the initial stages of lockdown starting in March 2020, Boston bookstores have lost many customers, leading to a decrease in sales. 

“Our sales are way down from this time last year, and this is pretty much true of every brick and mortar business,” Lydia McOscar, an assistant buyer at Brookline Booksmith, said. “That’s just a product of being closed for several months and having limited people in the store.” 

Brookline Booksmith shifted towards doing more business online to continue making money while their brick and mortar store was closed. 

“We have done exponentially more online orders than we ever did before,” McOscar said. “That has been a learning curve for us.”

But even with an increased online business, McOscar said the store is not reaching its usual sale rate. However, the brick and mortar store has reopened at a limited capacity.  

“We physically can’t fulfill as many orders and ship as many books as people coming in can buy them,” McOscar said. “Having people back in the store has really helped our business.”

Trident Booksellers also made use of their online bookstore during the past year. Customers have been using the website to buy books at a higher rate. 

“Numbers jumped from around 3,000 sales to 20,000 sales online,” Geoffrey Raywood, bookstore manager of Trident Booksellers, said in reference to this year’s sales.

Despite the increase in online sales, Raywood said most sales still come from in-person shoppers. 

“We rely heavily on folks coming into the store and try to modify the website to replicate the store,” Raymond said. “But it does not replicate the actual act of walking through a bookstore.”

While moving online has been a way for some stores to continue operating during the pandemic, not all bookstores have the ability to transfer to online sales.

Brattle Book Shop in Boston sells used, and rare books that cannot be cataloged into an online database like other stores’ stock can be.

“It is hard because new books can be sold online and the stock is trackable with multiple copies,” Zachary Marconi, the assistant manager at Brattle Book Shop, said. “Every book in our shop is unique and our stock is constantly changing; there is no catalog. There’s no online equivalent.” 

Brattle Book Shop is well known for its “lawn” of books in the vacant lot outside the store. This was another big seller that has been shut down throughout the pandemic. 

“The lack of in person shopping is irreplaceable for a shop like us when it comes to general used books — especially in the outside area,” Marconi said. 

Despite the issues regarding used book stock, Brattle Book Shop has been able to continue sales using another inventory that has a loyal customer base: antiques. The third floor of the shop is dedicated to antique and rare books that bring in collectors from around the world. Remote buying is easier with collectors who worked remotely with the store prior to the pandemic. 

“There is more remote work with existing clients for the rare books,” Marconi said. “Because we have a number of existing colleagues and clients for that, [the] pandemic has had us do a lot more of that.”

Book sales are not the only thing that needed to be adapted during the pandemic. In-person events had to be redirected online as well. 

Brattle Book Shop moved its book fairs — which usually bring in large amounts of revenue as well as customers from all over — online during the pandemic. 

“One rare book element that has changed is the book fairs,” Marconi said. “We held a few antiquarian book fairs. People came from all over the world. Participating now in online book fairs [is] a very different thing from being able to sell in person.”

For Brookline Booksmith, whose main consumers lay in the surrounding streets of Brookline, hosting events online was a surprising way to reach customers from around the world.

“We have a YouTube channel now, and our virtual events can be viewed at any time,” McOscar said. “We are able to reach a lot more people than we previously could. If you’re not physically in Brookline and from somewhere around the world, you can still tune in.” 

Despite in-person book sales dropping, there has been a surge in readers looking for new genres. Due to the political and social climate throughout 2020, more people are looking for books to educate themselves on the world around them.

McOscar noticed increased interest in books about African American studies and sociology books focused on race. In addition to anti-racist books, McOscar encountered an increase in plague and epidemic related non-fiction and fiction throughout the pandemic. 

Other customers were searching for comfort. 

“We also have a romance section that is relatively new,” McOscar said. “It has done even better this year. There is something to be said about what people are looking for: both comfort and joy.”

Although book sales have dropped throughout the pandemic, McOscar said it is not due to levels of interest.

“It has been a struggle trying to make ends meet, but that is for no lack of interest on our customers’ part,” McOscar said. “They are passionately attached to the bookstore and want to support us.”

McOscar said individual’s attachment to the store indicates that love for reading physical books still exists. 

“For the past 10 to15 years, people were predicting that paper books were going to decline in sales and kind of go away as people took up ebooks,” McOscaar said. “Everyone is still buying paper books. It’s a testament to how attached people are to books as a physical, cultural object and to the experience of reading them.”

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