Ross Rojek of Capitol Books
Ross Rojek, owner of Capital Books, hands book shipments to a letter carrier for delivery. REUTERS/Sharon Bernstein

Peer past the sign declaring that Beers Books is closed due to coronavirus restrictions, and you can see boxes stacked high on pallets and bins waiting to be filled with orders, as the 85-year-old Sacramento institution prepared to reopen on Friday.

Manager Andrew Naify was busy trying to buy disinfectant and masks for his employees, a ritual repeating itself across the state as California began to nudge its economy back into gear after more than six weeks of mandatory shutdowns. Bookstores, flower shops and other retail businesses were allowed to partially open on Friday by offering curbside service to customers.

“We’re going to try to recoup some of our losses,” said Naify, “because we definitely took a big hit.”

But figuring out how to keep their businesses alive has required a nimbleness some bookstore owners say is new to them. As the pandemic made it impossible for customers to browse inside their shops, local bookstores learned how to engage customers in other ways, stepping up social media posts and delivering books to customers’ homes.

The pandemic wrought havoc on an industry already ravaged by internet book sales, as Amazon and a few other sellers drove chains and small retailers out of business. U.S. bookstore sales revenues dropped in half over the decade from 2009 to 2019, U.S. Census Bureau statistics show, from $15.8 billion to $8.8 billion.

“It’s a whole new way of doing things,” said Naify, whose family owns Beers Books. Because customers can’t come in and sell their used books to bolster his inventory, he’s switched the store’s business model from selling 80 percent used books and 20 percent new ones, to 70 percent used and 30 percent discounted volumes. Customers are responding to the store’s efforts to reach them on social media, and their Instagram engagement has increased by 10%.

At Capital Books in downtown Sacramento, owners Ross and Heidi Rojek have moved office equipment into their front showroom, since customers can’t come in anyway, and begun personally driving books to purchasers’ homes.

They’ve replaced a big display of books at the front of the store with boxes of puzzles, set near the door so customers craving a quarantine activity will see them as they walk by or arrive to pick up other orders.

“Puzzles are a hot item right now,” Ross Rojek said, waving at the floor-to-ceiling display. The couple had expected sales to drop during the shutdown, but locals are ordering lots of books, puzzles and games, stopping by to pick them up or asking the Rojeks to drop them at their homes.

Delivering Books to Homes

Delivering the books turns out to be much cheaper and quicker than mailing them — a 20-minute drive in Sacramento delivers a book when the same package dropped in the mail or sent by a shipping company would take 10 days, Ross Rojek said. Rather than order from Amazon, which is rushing to fulfill orders during the pandemic, customers can buy a book by phone or online, and get a quick neighborhood delivery or pick it up, he said.

Customers have come to feel so involved with the store some have offered to take books around their own neighborhoods to other customers. On the floor of the store are about a half-dozen bins with the names of Sacramento neighborhoods scrawled on them, ready for delivery.

That personal involvement has helped keep many independent bookstores viable in the age of Amazon, and owners hope the innovations and connections forged during the coronavirus crisis may strengthen their place in the community going forward.

“The entire industry is working hard right now to adapt their businesses, keep connecting books with readers, and find innovative ways to be of service to their communities right now,” said Allison Hill, chief executive officer of the American Booksellers Association.

The financial hit taken by bookstores shut by coronavirus restrictions varies greatly, from a 15% drop in sales all the way up to a loss of 75% of their business, Hill said.

At Beers, Naify hopes to stabilize from an 85% drop in business with the help of a federal small business loan that will pay for his employees’ salaries through June.

“We’re planning on reopening, and we want to sell lots and lots of books,” he said. “We have a store full of awesome stuff.”