As New York’s Indie Bookstores Close Their Doors, They Search for Community Online

PG Note: The OP was published on March 17.

From The Vulture:

Last Tuesday, Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene hosted a talk with the author Kate Elizabeth Russell. Few signs of anything amiss could be discerned. The event was so well attended that dozens of audience members had to stand in the aisles, and no one seemed particularly concerned about the possibility that deadly germs were lingering on their plastic cups of wine.

By Thursday, Greenlight had decided to cancel all events, but its doors remained open, and customers continued to file into the store, stocking up on books and puzzles to occupy their minds during the lonely days to come. Stories of pandemics were selling well — Ling Ma’s Severance, Emily St. John Mandel’s Station Eleven — as were the sorts of thick, ambitious tomes that are more often spoken of than read.

And then came Monday, when the city and state tightened restrictions on bars and restaurants and students stopped going to school. Greenlight sent out an email to its customers noting that “the moment has come to do more.” Along with most of the city’s other indie bookstores, it was shutting its doors to the public.

The sense of doom and gloom that has suddenly descended over the world is, in some ways, not altogether unfamiliar to people in the publishing business. For the last decade, as the internet has encroached on the mental space we once reserved for reading, people who rely on books for a living have wondered how long their jobs will last. But amid the shuttering of chains like Borders, the rise of the indie bookstore has been a bright spot. These stores have thrived and multiplied because they provide what Amazon can’t: conversations with authors, story hours for kids, cozy spaces where readers can gather, staff members eager to recommend something to fill the void once you’ve torn through all of Tana French’s mysteries. In an increasingly atomized, online world, they offer a sense of community that augments the value of the books themselves, and that was never clearer than in the days before they closed.

On Friday, at Books Are Magic in Cobble Hill, the co-owner and author Emma Straub sat on a leather couch wearing a hand-drawn pin reminding customers to wash their hands. Nearby, kids and their parents slouched in beanbag chairs, flipping through picture books about dragons and princesses and snow days. The cozy scene stood in stark contrast to the fear and uncertainty of the world outside the store. “This is the whole point,” said Straub, looking at the families wistfully. By then, she had made the difficult decision to cancel all events. 

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Many of the shops are looking for creative solutions to stay open for online business, as well as the communities they’ve fostered. Astoria Bookshop, in Queens, is offering books for pickup. “The vast majority of our customers live in Astoria,” Lexi Beach, the owner, told me, “so if they’re well enough to go out for a walk, they can come to the store, knock on the door, we’ll have their book ready for them.” Beach was intrigued by an idea she’d seen on Twitter from a bookstore in D.C. that was offering customers exclusive occupancy of the store for one-hour time slots.

. . . .

“We’re trying to think about the ways we can still be an inspiring space without the physical space,” she said. “There’s a silver lining to all of this — that we can reinvent how we talk about storytelling.”

. . . .

“We’re talking about setting up virtual book tours,” she said. “The internet has always been a thing that we, as a store, have been good at, so I feel like this is the time for us to really use that force for good and try to shine the light on as many writers as we can.”

Meanwhile, at Idlewild, a bookstore specializing in travel books and language classes, the owner, David Del Vecchio, has begun experimenting with offering classes on Zoom. So far, he said, it had gone surprisingly well. “At first Zoom seemed like a compromise,” he wrote in an email, “but it works great for a small class. Even though it sucks not to be able to be in a room together, it’s not that different in some ways.”

Link to the rest at The Vulture

PG suggests having an interesting online presence is always likely to help a bookstore. It’s easier to have online up and running prior to anything that might require the physical store to close, however.