Sitting in her bookstore in the heart of Oak Park, near display tables with copies of “The 1619 Project,” Ibram X. Kendi’s “Four Hundred Souls,” Barack Obama’s “A Promised Land” and James Baldwin’s “The Price of the Ticket,” Georgia West talks about how business picked up during the pandemic.
Listed as one of the top 10 Black-owned bookstores in the country, West’s store, Underground Books, did a roaring trade in 2020. “Anything that had to do with race,” she says, describing the titles that flew out the door. “It was after George Floyd. People were interested in race relations, and supporting small businesses, African American businesses. Our business really increased. We’d just started remodeling. We didn’t miss a beat. We were getting orders from all over the country.”
West found that even while her clients couldn’t enter the store during the first, terrifying months of the COVID crisis, they still wanted to buy books—and were willing to come curbside to do pickups. “People weren’t going out. They started reading more, started seeing the importance of buying local.”
Children’s book sales were off the charts, as were sales of games and puzzles—the sorts of things that families leaned into during those long stay-at-home months in the spring and summer of 2020, when most forms of public entertainment were off limits and when people’s homes really did become their castles. By the time Underground Books reopened for in-person shopping in the early summer of 2020, West had increased her customer base and sales were higher than they had ever been.
In Sacramento and the surrounding region, most of the independent booksellers reported the same thing: With the majority of bookstores shuttered at the start of the pandemic, they feared that their businesses would be destroyed. “Browsing is the bread and butter of the bookstore,” explains Finian Scott-Small, manager of the wondrously crowded and atmospheric secondhand bookstore Time Tested Books in midtown.
“I panicked at the time,” recalls Ross Rojek, who owns Capital Books with his wife, Heidi. “I contacted my major vendors and landlord, said, ‘I’ll pay what I can, but expect me to be behind on bills.’ I laid off my two employees. It was just my wife and me.”
Yet within weeks the Rojeks realized that, so long as they expanded their online presence and their ability to do curbside pickups, their business would survive. They bought a 6-foot pole with a hook, so they could navigate books into the trunks of customers’ cars on the K Street Mall without getting too close to other, potentially infectious humans. They were creative with how they used their resources and space.
“We pivoted really quickly to all online ordering, and turned the bottom floor into a shipping center,” says Ashley Ford, events coordinator at Capital Books, as she sits in the store’s top-floor Flamingo Lounge, which the owners are planning to convert into a full-time cafe in 2022. “We did curbside pickup and local delivery as well.” When in-person shopping was first allowed again, they implemented a shop-by-appointment system: Customers would go online and reserve a 20-minute window when they would have the entire store to themselves. (Beers Books, on S Street, chose a similar yet slightly different strategy, with the owners implementing a 30-minute browsing limit, so customers waiting outside wouldn’t have to spend hours in line.)
At the start of 2021, Capital Books also began hosting Feast & Fiction evenings, when customers could rent out the entire store after hours for a bubble of six to eight people. Staff members would provide them with a charcuterie board; if they preferred, they could bring in their own food and eat it in Flamingo Lounge.
The realization that bookstores were going to weather the tempest better than many other businesses soon set in. While clothing stores, restaurants and other downtown staples hemorrhaged cash and relied on federal Paycheck Protection Program loans to stay afloat, booksellers unexpectedly suddenly found themselves in a golden age.
Even when the George Floyd protests (and the police response) turned much of downtown Sacramento into a war zone, and when most K Street Mall businesses were either looted or boarded up by owners, the Rojeks kept their bookshop open. Local homeless residents looked out for the store—the owners had a reputation for letting homeless people browse books and providing them with water. On the worst nights of the confrontations, Ross Rojek would spend hours in the store guarding his stock and trying to protect people caught up in the violence.
“I could smell tear gas in the air,” he recalls of the first of those hair-raising nights. “I had a woman and her teenage daughter in front of the store. I moved them in. All of a sudden, there’s a flood of kids and people. I let them in. I had a store full of people, crying, trying to clean their eyes in the bathroom. There was a huge cop presence. There was a giant crowd of armor-clad police at K and 11th. I had to get out. I wandered down K Street at 2 a.m., my hands in the air, being yelled at by heavily armed police.” But, he says, despite it all, “I refused to board up, because that’s giving up. I’m not going to do it. That was the line I was not willing to cross.”
While, for the Rojeks, the do-or-die moment for their business came in June 2020, for booksellers further removed from the protests, the entire pandemic was just a rolling stress test. Out in the suburbs, bookstore staff found that the simple act of enforcing mask requirements could lead to ugly confrontations with customers. “It really tested the mettle of my employees,” explains Tina Ferguson, owner of the decade-old Face in a Book in El Dorado Hills. “My employees got hit with a lot of anger and frustration from people. Not physical violence; people saying they didn’t have to wear a mask. One gentleman said, ‘Your masks have all been bought by government stipends.’ My employee said, ‘No, the masks were bought by my employer with her own money.’ He threw the mask on the ground, stomped on it and left. Boy, those angry people sure do stick with you and make it difficult. You see the best and worst of people in these situations.”
Each regional bookstore owner, for various reasons, feared collapse—in the face of violence, stay-at-home-orders or simply angry customers. And yet each of them found ways, during those first long months, to stay afloat amid the chaos. As the pandemic ground on, they found, to their surprise, that their customers were getting more intensely loyal, and that demand was soaring.
Face in a Book, Capital Books, Beers Books, The Avid Reader and others all reported record sales in 2020—and, in particular, massive bumps in holiday-season business. When that first pandemic Christmas rolled around, Capital Books partnered with other local stores to create a one-stop-shopping website and a single pickup spot, complete with a Santa Claus, in the lobby of the Crest Theatre, for all the stores’ products.
The Avid Reader, which was allowed to stay open as an essential business, owing to the fact that it sells all the big daily newspapers and also stocks all of the big national magazines, immediately began enforcing strict safety protocols once the pandemic took root, limiting to six the number of people allowed in the store at any one time and mandating masks be worn. Despite fears of the new virus, customers continued to arrive every day. “I expanded puzzles a lot,” owner Stan Forbes remembers. “Because it’s an indoor activity. You couldn’t go out anymore, couldn’t socialize, couldn’t go to restaurants. So you do puzzles. They’re addictive. I had the best puzzle collection in town. I increased our board games—people were in their pods, with the group they’re living with. You can’t always watch TV. Book buying was up. The last two years were the best we had. People were home and reading more.”
As weeks of shelter-in-place mandates turned into months, Forbes noticed changes in his customers’ reading habits. In a locked-down world, travel books ceased to be in demand, although the sale of local hiking guides soared. Customers started buying more hardbacks. Sales of high-end greeting cards took off, as more people sought to maintain social relationships by writing letters to old friends. STEM-related toy sales went through the roof as customers looked to find ways to keep their kids engaged in the sciences even when they couldn’t partake in school labs.
Elsewhere, other owners noticed similar trends.
“It was our best year,” says Face in a Book’s Ferguson. During the stay-at-home months of spring 2020, the store had to close, but Ferguson took orders online, then drove around town personally delivering puzzles and books. When the store reopened, she made a point of tracking down difficult-to-get books that the bigger chain stores and online sites couldn’t quickly deliver. “We were able to get books customers couldn’t get from Amazon” because of snarls in Amazon’s supply chain, she says. “They were surprised. It created a lot of loyalty. We got customers back in the store who had forgotten us over the years.”
Those good sales numbers continued through 2021, even as the broader economy began opening up again and vaccines allowed for a resumption of more “normal” socializing. Anticipating high demand for the second pandemic Christmas, the region’s bookstores began ramping up their stock for the holidays in the early autumn and hiring additional staff to cater to the anticipated rush of customers.
Along the cluttered secondhand stacks at Beers Books, the largest independent bookstore in town (it has been around since the Great Depression), a handful of customers browse for volumes to read. Working one of the cash registers is Andy Naify, 36. He has worked at the store, his family’s business, on and off since he was a teenager. Before he started, it was his father’s fiefdom.
Beers is now selling as many as 300 books a day, Naify estimates. And, he says, since the George Floyd protests, many of those books have been on social and racial justice themes, with authors such as Ralph Ellison, Angela Davis and Ibram X. Kendi in particularly high demand. In addition, he says, there was a huge spike in interest both in old history books that detailed the trajectories of earlier pandemics, including the Spanish flu, and in classic literature. “A lot of people were catching up on classics, picking up Dostoyevsky for the first time, working their way through [them]. Whatever people were dabbling in, it got amplified. Crafts. Aubrey-Maturin series.”
At the height of the pandemic, Naify remembers, customers would come into the store seeking solace. “For the older customers, it was one of the few interactions they’d have in a given week.”
Now, Naify hopes to reap the rewards of a year-plus of living pandemically. “It was pretty extraordinary the way people were coming out for us. We had a lot of lean years—the recession of ’08. It was really tough to keep the lights on. We’re doing well now. It’s a more than viable long-term business, which is really nice. The public has come out and supported us.”