In the COVID Storm, Bookstores Try to Stay Afloat

Old Capitol Books in Monterey | Provided Photo


By Claudia Meléndez Salinas

After decades of battling every market force imaginable — Amazon, bookstore chains, megastores like Costco, and online shopping — independent bookstores have been making a comeback in the last decade, as proclaimed by the American Library Association and hundreds of testimonials throughout the country.

Stories of people who decided to open up a bookstore for the sheer purpose of creating community and celebrating the printed word became more common than stories of stores going under. In the now very distant past of February 18, Ryan Rafaelli, professor of business administration at Harvard Business School, was interviewed on WBUR about his paper “Reinventing Retail: The Novel Resurgence of Independent Bookstores,” where he described what he’s seen in eight years of interviewing hundreds of booksellers in 26 states: an industry leading the way in reshaping retail in a digital world.

And just as it’s done to every sector of the economy that brings people together, COVID-19 is threatening to wipe away indie booksellers’ gains. With little to no savings and small profit margins, bookstores in the Monterey Bay region are struggling to survive.

“Once … the governor said we had to shelter in place, we followed the rule,” said Trish Sullivan, co-owner of Downtown Book & Sound in Salinas. “We basically had to put the staff on (furlough) until we can open up again. People walk by or call up, upset because we’re not open.”

Barely a year after it opened, Downtown Book & Sound was on its way to becoming a downtown favorite with weekly readings and music events (disclosure: I read at two of those events in 2019). Sullivan had just hired two more employees, which brought the payroll to seven.

“We’ve had a steady increase in business over the last year,” she said. “Our biggest disappointment, we got to a point where we (had) book signings with authors almost every week. It was a fun thing. We had authors scheduled all through the spring and summer that we’ve cancelled and postponed. We don’t know how long it’s going to be.”

At this point, no one really knows how long the closure will last. Six weeks into “shelter in place” for the Central Coast, the Bay Area counties that ordered their residents to stay put, ahead of other municipalities in California that have just announced they’re extending their orders until the end of May. After Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, San Francisco, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz counties led the way, Monterey County and the state of California soon followed. The chances of the lockdown extending at least through the end of May seem likely.

The closure has already been brutal for mom-and-pop stores. A survey of small businesses by Main Street America found that 57 percent of respondents saw their incomes plummet by more than 75 percent during the first week in March. More than 27 percent are at risk of closing permanently if the closure goes on for one to two months, while almost 6 percent said they would not be able to survive a month’s closure. 

Casey Coonerty Protti, owner of Bookshop Santa Cruz, describes the experience unlike anything the bookstore’s seen before.

“And that includes the (1989 Loma Prieta) earthquake, a defining moment. It was incredibly difficult to get through that. We survived with the incredible outpouring of support from the community and we were only closed for one month.”

Bookshop Santa Cruz’s staff was kept two weeks on the payroll after the COVID closure began, then half of the staff was furloughed as sales dropped 40 to 50 percent, Protti said. Just this Sunday they were called back after the store received a federal Paycheck Protection Program loan, which will be forgivable if staff is kept on payroll for eight weeks and the money is used to pay employees, rent, mortgage interest or utilities.

“That takes us through mid-June, when I hope we may be back to some semblance of being able to open to the public if it’s safe to do so,” Protti said.

Still, Bookshop Santa Cruz is not likely to be returning to its pre-closure sales. With graduations cancelled, there will be nobody in town to purchase gifts and likely no hordes of tourists coming by to get their beach reading. If there’s a second or third wave of the virus, it could affect the fall season when new releases hit the stands. And then comes the big holiday season.

“I’m optimistic to get through June but what challenges lay ahead, 12 to 18 months down the road is a much bigger question in my mind. I hope our customers help us sustain us if this crisis lasts for a very long time,” Protti said.

That’s pretty much the prayer on every bookstore owner’s lips. Last week, Stephanie Spoto of Oldtown Capitol Books in Monterey launched a GoFund me campaign with the goal to raise $50,000, which would help cover overhead expenses for about five to six months (a similar campaign saved City Lights Bookstore in San Francisco). In addition, Spoto launched a “care package” program which includes a book (or two or three) and an art piece from local artists Jeddy Grant, Ari Edwards, and Claire Durand-Gasselin, ranging in price from $15 to $100 per piece. 

“With $100 you get a rare, vintage, or deluxe book signed, something 150 years old or something rare about the book that makes it special,” Spoto said. “And you get art from the local community.”

Similar to what Downtown Book and Sound was experiencing, Old Capitol Books was in the midst of a resurgence three years after Spoto and her husband Ali Elfaki bought the store. They organized live events, which were becoming more popular and sometimes attracted up to 40 people (another disclosure: I had a book event there too).

“In the future, we’ll probably end up having to move to a smaller space, we’re trying to be flexible and use our imagination over what the future will look like,” Spoto said. “We want to have a physical shop, we like to do events. Monterey is a small town, we’re never going to have 100 people. If we had five people that was exciting, and sometimes 30 or 40 people would come out. For a local poetry reading, that’s really exciting.”

Sullivan’s approach to staying afloat is three-pronged: she’s selling books by phone (she’ll walk around the store to find what her customers want) to be picked up or delivered for free in Salinas; she’s plugged in through, which gives independent booksellers 30 percent of the profit, and through, an online portal for audio books.

Downtown Book and Sound was not just hit by COVID, but also by plans by the city of Salinas to begin major street work in the midst of the pandemic. A couple of weeks ago, all the trees on the first three blocks of Main Street were taken out to give way to a long announced revamping process, and businesses that had hoped to survive through curbside delivery are probably out of luck now.

“That’s been a double whammy,” Sullivan said. “Even if you’re offering curbside pickup, that’s another thing to ask a customer to overcome, and some people won’t even come to downtown with all the construction.”

Yet if there’s one type of business well positioned to take on the current crisis, it’s bookstores. After all, they’ve outlived Borders and Barnes & Noble, taking on mega-giant Amazon and giving Walmart a run for its money. They might, just might, wrestle COVID to the ground.

“You’re not going to find a more guerrilla-type business than bookstores,” Protti said. “We made it through big box (retailers), e-books and still came through the other side. There is an operational grittiness that allowed independent bookstores to try anything they can to make a difference and stay alive. A lot of experiences on that can help us here.”

There’s also something else that’s special about bookstores: they’re bastions of community building. At a time when everything that spells community seems to be falling apart, a desire to preserve what binds us together may come to bookstores’ rescue.

“My dad always had a quote, if you fall down seven times, you get up eight times. That’s pretty much the motto for independent bookstores,” Protti said.

How to help:

Bookshop Santa Cruz is taking orders over the phone for curbside pickup or USPS delivery, and has a wide assortment of care packages. They are hosting zoom events such as Zoom Forward! #6 with Chuck Atkinson, Barbara Bloom, Dane Cervine on May 1 at 5 p.m. (Disclosure: I never had an event there). Their fundraiser Keep Kids Reading benefits children who are not attending school in families that can’t afford to buy books., (831) 423-0900

Downtown Book and Sound is taking over the phone orders for curbside pickup and free delivery in Salinas. They’re also selling through and, (831) 477-6700

Old Capitol Books is offering “quarantine care packages” that include art by local artists. Its owners have also launched a GoFund me campaign and have their catalog available for browsing at AbeBooks. Curbside pickup available., (831) 333-0383

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Claudia Meléndez Salinas

About Claudia Meléndez Salinas

Claudia Meléndez Salinas is an author, journalist, open water swimmer, and cat lover. | Claudia Meléndez Salinas es autora, periodista, nadadora de aguas abiertas, y aficionada a los gatos.