Monday, June 8, was one of the busiest days of The Mysterious Bookshop’s history. Ironically, though, the 3,000-square-foot room, with its high shelves holding the largest variety of crime books in America, was almost entirely empty save for employees preparing books and other mystery-related products for shipping and pickup.
“This is my first day here after three months, and orders accumulated,” said Otto Penzler, who founded the story in 1979. “We just sent out a notice to our regular main list and for the first couple of hours this morning the phone has been ringing off the hook with clients wanting to know about their books.”
Like almost every retailer in New York, the Tribeca bookshop remained closed during the lockdown. To make up for the losses, they enhanced their newsletter with book recommendations by the staff and by renowned authors in the genre—Joyce Carol Oates, Dennis Lehane, James Ellroy, A.J. Finn and others—while still selling gift cards and some books directly through their distributor, Ingram.
But that wasn’t nearly enough to keep the business healthy. “We couldn’t ship any of our out-of-print books, or rare books, or signed books because they were inside the shop, which was locked, and that is the major part of our business, to tell you the truth,” said Penzler. They also had to indefinitely cancel events that brought large groups inside the shop.
Penzler was relieved to get the news that phase one of New York’s reopening process allows bookshops to reopen with curbside or front-door pickup. Yet, he doesn’t know how long it will take for him to pay what he described as a “mountain of debts” in the middle of the shop’s worst crisis. “We’re probably doing 2 percent, maybe 3 percent of the business that we normally do,” he said.
Customers have to shop on the website or over the phone, and are asked to make an appointment and wear masks before their visits. Only three clients at a time can enter, and they must respect social distancing measures. Penzler doesn’t have a clue when The Mysterious Bookshop will go back to what it used to be. All he knows is that in the meantime, masks and hand sanitizers will be a constant in his business. Reading sessions and signings? “That may not happen again until the end of the year or next year, when it looks like there will be a vaccine. Or we all hope there will be,” he said.
The bookshops’ transition rules, necessary for the reopening process, reveal what’s to come for these retailers in the near future. The American Booksellers Association has an entire page with detailed guidelines to help business owners adjust during these times. Among safety tips, they suggest booksellers “designate a reshelving area for customers to leave books they have touched but decided not to buy. Wipe down the covers or set the books aside for 72 hours before reshelving.”
At Strand, the 93-year-old independent giant that became one of New York’s landmarks, there is no touching the books you’re not buying. Whoever passes by the storefront at the corner of Broadway and 12th St., will see a small table set up on a side entrance where the carts with discounted books used to be located. There, an employee delivers the orders processed online—still the customer’s only option—while ensuring everyone involved is wearing a mask. Hand sanitizers on site complete the operation.
“We’re playing everything day by day,” said Strand’s communications director, James Odum. The store presumes “a return to normalcy will take a very long time.” “There will definitely be changes once we can reopen to emphasize health, safety, and cleanliness. Right now we’re focusing entirely on making the curbside pick-up experience as seamless as possible,” said Odum.
But this is another example of a band-aid not nearly big enough for the wound. Strand’s kiosks at Times Square and Central Park remain closed, their Upper West Side branch’s opening date has been delayed and no client can step foot inside the main store. “The heart of our operation is the in-person experience. When New York originally shut down we had no way to access our inventory to keep selling online, so essentially we made no revenue from March 16 to April 25,” said Odum. At the time, Strand laid off most of its employees, before being able to reopen the online business. Odum said they received a lot of support from customers and focused on improving the e-commerce shop. “However, online sales are not even close to our usual numbers.”
Considering that personal experience is what makes bookstores unique, the Brooklyn-based bookshop Molasses, focused primarily on poetry, announced there is no point in reopening right now. “The truth is, it makes little sense for a used bookstore to do curbside pickup, as browsing for things you didn’t know you’d encounter is the nature of a shop like this. We’ve always been a community space, not a takeout location,” says one of their Instagram posts. Molasses will wait for phase two to decide their next steps.
In Williamsburg, Spoonbill & Sugartown Books decided to open because it’s their only way to survive, according to their spokesperson. They are working with reduced hours and allowing a maximum of six customers at a time. “On our second day, we sold 53 books, which is much less than what we used to sell. But we’re happy with the community’s encouragement and with the fact that people are still being conscious and staying home. This is a delicate subject,” said the bookseller’s representative. A fundraiser created in April to save the shop is still going on and has raised more than $100,000 by now.
For New York’s oldest bookshop, Argosy Book Store, in midtown Manhattan, the pandemic changed everything. During phase one, they decided to reopen for pickup and delivery options—just like the others—but they aren’t in a rush to go back to what the store used to be. The reason? Their online sales spiked during the lockdown. That happened because they specialized in items for collectors, which means that their clients know exactly what they want to buy, without having to explore the shop to discover. “I was very excited that our first pickup was a rare 18th century map called Geometrical Survey of the Environs of Toulon,” said Laura Ten Eyck, director of Argosy’s gallery, renowned for its collection of ancient maps.
Back when there was no pandemic, most of the people who visited Argosy Book Store were tourists or passersby who would admire the Midtown store, but would often leave empty-handed. Meanwhile, many buyers were people who live abroad and would receive their products via mail, or come to New York to pick up their orders. Now, they can’t even do that. “We feel we’ve been pushed to the digital age even further now,” Ten Eyke said. A good part of her current work is to continue adding their catalogue to the website.
Even Ten Eyck’s regular work as a map specialist was affected. If in the past she would stay eight hours a day in the store’s gallery ready to explain every detail of a map to visitors, now she is available almost 24/7 to clients around the world who want to see the products—books, posters, drawings, maps—through a video call. “I’m talking about really special items and, in those cases, just photos are no good for the clients to see what they want. So I gotta be available,” Ten Eyck said.
Correction, June 12: This post was revised to correct the name of Strand’s communications director.