There isn’t much reason to be wandering down previously bustling St. Marks Place right now, unless you’re a used book enthusiast. Despite the ongoing coronavirus lockdown, East Village Books is still open daily from 1pm till dusk. With some caveats. “You will not be permitted to enter if you have any symptoms,” its website warns.
The narrow, walk-down bookshop— which has long sold used books divided into sections like “Anti This Establishment”— is claiming an exemption from New York’s March 22 non-essential business shutdown, since it qualifies as a business with a single occupant/employee. Thursday through Saturday, customers can enter the store, provided they wear masks and stand six feet away from others. Browsing is limited to just 15 minutes when the space is at its new capacity of five people. While still buying books, the shop maintains minimal contact with booksellers by communicating with them via phone rather than in person. Sellers are asked to call in from outside and drop off books in designated bins. They’ll be paid with cash tucked into an envelope—along with an alcohol wipe.
East Village Books is by far the exception among New York City bookstores, most of which have closed their doors and are only accepting online orders, if that. The hallowed Strand laid off most of its employees last month and now even its online store is closed.
In Williamsburg, Spoonbill & Sugartown has also put up its “closed” sign for the time being. But inside of the independent bookstore on Bedford Avenue, the phones are ringing all day. Co-owners Miles Bellamy and Jonas Kyle are still going to work, hoping to keep their business running.
Earlier this week, Bellamy and Kyle launched a GoFundMe campaign, “Save Our Spoonbill,” with the goal of raising $150,000. They estimate the amount could get them through two to three months of normal operation. Bellamy said he and his partner had intended to focus on outreach for the fundraiser, which has brought in a little over $16,000, but more often than not, they find themselves swamped trying to get books out the door.
Before the coronavirus shutdown, there would be three to four employees at the store at a given time to fulfill book orders. But for the last few weeks, Bellamy and Kyle have been taking turns working in the front and back rooms, managing, packing and shipping up to 60 orders that come in each day via phone, email and their website. “We try not to have more than one or two people in the store at a time […] We don’t want to put the staff at risk and ask them to come in,” said Bellamy. Unlike some bookstores that have their entire inventory on the website, Spoonbill has just started putting some books on the web so that more people can order online.
Even with these daily orders, Spoonbill is struggling to survive. “We were already having trouble before this happened—or just on the edge,” Bellamy said. “Unless we combine hard work with a little bit of miracle, it isn’t gonna work.”
In the book business, booksellers have 30, 60 or 90 days to pay for books purchased from their publishers, and Spoonbill has already accumulated $100,000 worth of book bills, Bellamy continued. Another major expense is the $15,000 monthly rent, which the owner didn’t expect to be waived anytime soon. Bellamy says neither he nor Kyle have much money in their personal bank accounts, and with business expenses to pay and families to take care of, going to work has been an intense experience because daily sales aren’t what they were.
Although the future is full of unknowns, Bellamy is grateful that Spoonbill at least has space to grow and that his store is doing its best to support the people who love them. Bellamy’s niece, performance artist and writer Alexandra Tatarsky, created a four-minute video to help promote the fundraiser. In it, Tatarsky plays three characters with different accents, explaining why bookstores like Spoonbill are in dire need for financial support now more than ever. She also points out that some bookstores elsewhere, in Belgium for example, remain open because they sell newspapers, which could be deemed essential during this time.
Spoonbill isn’t the only bookstore that’s coming up with creative ways to stay afloat during this crisis.
In addition to collecting Venmo donations and shipping out new tote bags, Matthew Winn, owner of Bushwick’s Molasses Books, is planning a reopening party for when this pandemic passes. “When venmoing support [via @molassesbooks], you have the option of writing FUTURE BEER in the memo, to have a beer tab we are keeping track of for when we reopen,” Winn wrote in an email.
Williamsburg’s quirky comics shop Desert Island, while physically closed, has been offering discounted gift certificates and $30 grab bags with stuff worth at least that amount. They also put out a call for submissions to Rescue Party, a series of nine-panel comics that depict idealistic futures in order to help people look forward to better times post-pandemic. Until the store can afford to publish selected submissions in print, Desert Island will be sharing these comics on social media every day.
In the meantime, booksellers continue to wonder what the next chapter will hold. “The whole thing is a great mystery,” Bellamy sighed. “Are we gonna make it another month? Three months? Are we gonna make it another year? It’s a hard atmosphere to work in.”