When the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Hyde Park’s bookstores were forced to close their doors to the public. Among them were Powell’s Books and the Seminary Co-op, two independent bookstores dating back to 1970 and 1961, respectively.
In April, representatives from both bookstores spoke to The Maroon about how the pandemic had changed the way they conduct operations, describing a shift to online sales, drops in revenue, and uncertainty about the future.
Since then, the American Booksellers Association has reported that more than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the beginning of the pandemic. This month, City Lit, an independent bookstore in Chicago’s Logan Square, announced that it would shut down at the end of the year.
Fortunately, Powell’s and the Seminary Co-Op both remain in business. The Maroon caught up with both stores to discuss how they have adapted to the challenges posed by the pandemic, how social distancing has impacted the culture surrounding books, and what they see for the future of bookselling.
Powell’s Books, located on 57th Street, has relied on online sales since closing its in-person operations. Online sales increased following the store’s in-person closure and remain higher than they were before the pandemic, but they have dipped in recent weeks.
“Internet sales are not as strong as they were a little while ago,” Bradley Jonas, the owner of Powell’s, explained. “I don’t know if everyone’s focusing more on the election or something; it just seems a little bit less than they were three or four weeks ago.”
Still, internet sales remain a crucial source of revenue. “From March until three or four weeks ago, [they] were very strong,” said Jonas. “They’re still stronger than they were about a year ago, but they’re not as strong as they were before.”
In addition to delivering online orders, Powell’s has started offering curbside pick-up. Customers can purchase their books online and pick them up outside of the store. They operate curbside pick-up four days a week for a few hours a day.
But without in-person browsing, the bookstore experience has changed substantially. “One of the strengths of a used bookstore is finding something that you weren’t looking for,” Jonas said. “If it’s a new book that you read up a review of, then that’s not so hard. You know what you’re looking for, you go order it. But [one] of the most exciting events that take place at a used bookstore is someone who just came in because they love books, and they find something that they didn’t even know existed.”
Uncertainty about how long social distancing guidelines will last has made it difficult for booksellers like Powell’s to plan their reopening and think about the future of their business. “With the advent of people thinking that they can find what they’re looking for online, I think there is something that’s going to be hurt,” said Jonas. “The [stores that] survive will weave together both the brick and mortar experience as well as the online experience, have one feeding into the other.”
Until they can let customers browse their shelves again, bookstores like Powell’s will have to try to survive almost entirely online. And while Jonas explained that there are certainly ways to use the internet to learn about new books—through bibliographies, book reviews, and other resources—the experience is not quite the same. “The serendipity of being in a store,” he said. “Some of it’s lost.”
Seminary Co-Op and 57th Street Books
The Seminary Co-Op Bookstores, Inc. has two locations in Hyde Park—the Seminary Co-Op (on Woodlawn Avenue) and 57th Street Books. Like Powell’s, they turned to internet sales when in-person operations shut down in March.
Jeff Deutsch, director of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstores, told The Maroon that the stores view internet sales as a way to stay afloat financially until they can fully reopen and create the in-person book shopping experience again in the future. “We are not expecting to be a warehouse fulfillment center for the long term,” he said. “We’re seeing it as a bridge to make sure that we can support in-person browsing in the long term.”
The in-person experience is a key part of the Seminary Co-Op's mission. In 2019, they became the first not-for-profit bookstores in the U.S. whose mission is bookselling. “We became a not-for-profit bookstore because our belief is that our value resides in a physical space for books and providing [that space] for the community to engage in,” Deutsch said. “Browsing itself, more than the books, is our product.”
“As far as we’re concerned,” Deutsch continued, “the reason people come to the store is to engage with the books in a specific way, to engage with other readers in that space in a specific way, and frankly, everything is lost if we close the doors.”
Deutsch acknowledges the uncertainty still facing the Seminary Co-Op. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll make it,” said Deutsch. “Will we still be viable when it’s safe and financially prudent to open? It’s a question that many bookstores are asking themselves right now.”
Still, the Seminary Co-Op is grateful for the relative ease with which they were able to transition online. “We are incredibly lucky to have a robust website and to have had it in place at the beginning of the pandemic,” Deutsch told The Maroon. “There are many great bookstores that don’t have that or didn’t have that, so moving to an online model was relatively easy for us. And by relatively, I mean the infrastructure was there, but obviously there was a tremendous amount of work.”
The Seminary Co-Op also offers curbside pick-up, an option that Deutsch described as wildly popular. “In the spring, early summer,” he said, “there were tremendous delays with the United States Postal Service. Everything took longer, and as soon as we produced curbside pick-up, it was a seismic shift for us.”
Deutsch explained that the bookstore’s proximity to and close relationship with the University helped its situation. “We’re lucky to have a community that supports us as much as our community does,” said Deutsch. “That includes of course the students who have just been incredible, both for spring quarter and fall quarter. The faculty have been incredible, not just in supporting the bookstores but in ensuring that first-year students who would normally come into the bookstores at this time are made aware of us. They make sure that students know we exist, we sell course-books, we’re a great cultural treasure. So, we have a lot going for us.”