Alabama’s old bookstores holding on with new strategies, online events

Alabama’s old bookstores holding on with new strategies, online events
Alabama bookstores have used online and, in some cases, curbside sales to continue selling to customers during the COVID-19 shutdown. (contributed)

While bookstores in Alabama were considered nonessential and mandated closed to the public for nearly a month, many owners turned to online sales and curbside deliveries to keep revenues streaming amid what had been more than a decade of steady book business nationwide.

Publishers Weekly said Americans paid more than $5 billion to buy nearly 700 million books last year, with little drop-off in sales expected in this year of the pandemic. Pew Research found that although about a quarter of all Americans have not read a book in a year or more, 65% said they’ve recently read a printed publication.

Mike Breen, manager of Read Herring in Montgomery, said “The Slave Who Went to Congress” and “All of the Belles” have sold “quite well” during the quarantine. Both are published by NewSouth Books, which shares its headquarters location with the bookstore (pronounced “red”) that reopened at 10 a.m. today.

“We actually don’t have an online storefront, so technically all of our sales during the quarantine came from call-ins and custom orders,” Breen said of the 20-year-old store. “With that in mind, sales were a fraction of what they normally are. This quarantine hit us pretty hard, but I think we are going to be OK.”

Regular customers have helped Alabama’s independent bookstores stay in business and keep their staffs intact during the shutdown through online and curbside sales. Some of the stores reopened Friday. (contributed)

Breen looks forward to renewed walk-in traffic from the Civil Rights Trail, which brings frequent out-of-town customers inside the South Court Street storefront looking for titles about the 1950s-1960s struggles in which Montgomery residents played a prominent role. However, he said it’s been the familiar customers who have helped Read Herring survive during the state-mandated closure.

“We are fortunate to have a group of customers in the local area who kept supporting us, since they kept buying books and using our curbside service and delivery offers,” Breen said, noting there has been no staff reduction. “We would like to thank them from the bottom of our hearts.”

Read Herring was able to livestream NewSouth’s release of the collection of stories by F. Scott Fitzgerald and the children’s book about U.S. Sen. Benjamin Sterling Turner (1825-1894) of Selma. Authors Frye Gaillard and Marti Rosner told about writing “The Slave Who Went to Congress” and Kirk Curnutt talked for an hour online about “All of the Belles: The Montgomery Stories of F. Scott Fitzgerald.” Those videos are available on the Read Herring Facebook page.

Breen said because of the large size of his bookstore, the temporary 50% occupancy and social distancing requirements “shouldn’t affect” customers or staff.

Pew Research found that the largest reader group in the U.S. is ages 18-29, with 80% reading physical books. Another 80% of Americans who are college-educated read frequently.

Book sales didn’t fall for the Alabama Booksmith in Homewood during Alabama’s retail quarantine. Owner Jake Reiss will continue to keep the doors of his 25-year-old store closed for the time being “in consideration of the health of our staff and customers.” Birmingham customers can order online or by phone and Reiss will bring books to their vehicles outside his store.

“Our business has remained pretty much the same, and with the release of certain new books, actually spiked,” Reiss said. “We are the only shop on the planet that sells exclusively signed books. Every book in the store is signed and sells for regular publisher’s price, the same as unsigned copies. Our online sales dominate our business, before and after the quarantine. Our entire staff is intact and will stay so.”

Reiss said he sold out of all John Grisham books during the coronavirus quarantine, as well as Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile” and a new book about the Masters golf tournament. He said other steady sellers include a couple by Alabama authors: Winston Groom’s “Forrest Gump” and Rick Bragg’s “All Over but the Shoutin’.”

Page & Palette in Fairhope had never sold books online until the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The 52-year-old business recently became an affiliate of Bookshop for online sales. (contributed)

Alabama Booksmith frequently hosts book signings by popular authors, but the events were canceled during the quarantine. Reiss said those will resume soon.

Page & Palette in Fairhope was founded in 1968 but didn’t have online sales until the quarantine. It has been an event-driven shop that attracted authors from across the country for in-house book signings and readings, which has resulted in “very slow” business the past month. Phone orders were taken for curbside pickup since April 4.

“With so many customers remaining at home who still wanted to support their local bookstore, we became an affiliate bookstore of Bookshop,” said Anderson McKean of Page & Palette. “This has enabled customers to search and purchase books online and have them shipped to their home.”

Page & Palette during the quarantine continued promoting books on social media, highlighting what furloughed staff members were reading at home. Titles that sold “particularly well” included “The End of October” by Lawrence Wright, “The Giver of Stars” by Jojo Moyes, “Walk the Wire” by David Balducci and “Where the Crawdad Sings” by Delia Owens, which is No. 1 nationally and sold more than 1 million copies last year. Children’s books that have been big sellers for Page & Palette during the pandemic include Max Brallier’s “Last Kids on Earth” series and the “Percy Jackson” series by Rick Riordan.

Page & Palette hosted a Facebook Live event with local author Watt Key as he answered questions from a virtual audience about his new book, “Beast.” An online storytime May 5 will highlight children’s authors Jonathan Stutzman and Heather Fox with their new picture book, “Llama Unleashes the Alpacalypse.”

Page & Palette’s building includes the full-service coffee shop Latte Da and Book Cellar bar with live music nightly, so it is a hub of activity in Fairhope’s old downtown district. McKean said large events will be postponed until the state’s 50% occupancy rule is lifted, but the store reopened today.

“Since many families are looking for things to keep children engaged, we also offer links to author- and publisher-hosted virtual events on our social media pages, such as the ‘Read Together, Be Together’ storytimes and ‘Magic Tree House Home Adventures’,” McKean said. “We plan to host our quarterly Book Club Night virtually later this month and will continue to evaluate other virtual author events.”

Fairhope’s Page & Palette was among the Alabama bookstores reopening Friday after the state’s retail shutdown order was lifted. (contributed)

Online sales increased 300% for Ernest & Hadley Booksellers in Tuscaloosa during the coronavirus quarantine, said store manager Avery Leopard. Customers bought “a little bit of everything,” but the majority were on The New York Times bestsellers list for fiction and young adult books.

“We are a small, family owned and operated business and have managed to keep our head above water,” Leopard said. “Our staff continues to work remotely or with reduced hours, but we are still on board. Our customers are amazing and have continued to shop with us, despite the limitations.”

Ernest & Hadley will remain closed the next three weeks. Bookstore employees will still be taking online and phone orders, and curbside pickup is available 1-3 p.m. Monday through Saturday and by appointment. Leopard said the store will continue the online book club and “Reader Meet Writer” series on Zoom, and offer a 15% online discount on authors’ books around the time of the virtual events.

“Out of concern and respect for our customers, staff and all of the front-line workers and medical personnel keeping us going, our plan is to reopen to the public on Monday, May 25, provided the curve is on the decline,” Leopard said.

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