Following Oregon Gov. Kate Brown’s shelter-in-place order, bookstores in Eugene are temporarily closed. Nevertheless, they continue to offer pickup and delivery options, while competing with the convenience of online retailers.
Smith Family Bookstore closed to the public on March 18, according to Evon Smith, the owner. Smith said that the bookstore implemented curbside pickup right away.
Smith Family Bookstore kept on three full-time staff members and one part-time staff member, Smith said. She said she called back an additional staff member, returning the following week. About half of the staff remains laid off, she said, until the bookstore can return to full operations. Inside the two-story building, she said, staff run around fulfilling orders placed over the phone or via email.
“Oftentimes,” Smith said, “people have a whole long list of things they’re looking for.” Others, she said, seek book suggestions.
The types of books purchased from Smith Family Bookstore varies, Smith said. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, though, she said that the Harry Potter books remain a top seller. “Game of Thrones” and “the Lord of the Rings” trilogy are popular titles, as well. Others, she said, embark on what she called “big project reads” — books like Leo Tolstoy’s “War and Peace,” and other epics.
Customers are not allowed inside the store. Staff find the books in their large collection, Smith said, and process payment ahead of time over the phone. They place the books in bags and wait for the customers to come pick it up outside the building.
J. Michael’s Books is another store offering curbside pick-up in Eugene. Jeremy Nissel, the store’s owner, is the only full-time employee. Nissel said he’s been paying his part-time employee during the pandemic but hasn’t been asking him to work, since social distancing would be difficult to maintain within the store.
He closed the store on March 23, he said, after the stay at home order came down.
Nissel offers home delivery to people in a five-mile radius of the store, as well. “Most people actually relish the opportunity to get out and run an errand,” he said. “There are some people who are immunocompromised who are just not going out, so I’m taking care of them.”
Nissel said that many of his customers are reading new fiction, looking for an escape. Others request books relating to pandemics, he said, as well as climate change novels. He said that J. Michael’s Books is in the beginning stages of developing an eCommerce website, allowing customers to browse online.
“I think we realized early on that, if this is going to be a thing that lasts a long time, or something that keeps cropping up in the future, we’re going to need a different way to create a revenue stream and keep us in business,” he said.
Besides fulfilling orders, Smith said, her staff’s focus shifted to other projects. She said that their “mountains of inventory” is consistently backlogged. “And so, for the first time, we're actually getting into piles of books that have been there for a year now, waiting for us to deal with it,” she said. The 400,000 books from the university branch of Smith Family Bookstore, which closed in December 2019, is another project for staff, Smith said.
“Things, frankly, are a lot better than I imagined,” Nissel said. Most of his sales came from customers browsing, he said, “and finding books to purchase they didn’t know they were interested in.” Since the onset of COVID-19, he said, J. Michael’s Books isn’t getting that same revenue. Customers have been supportive of his business, he said, by making sure to buy books from him, not online retailers. “There are silver linings to this,” he said, “and that’s one of them.”
Smith said she was surprised at the amount of frustrated people their staff experienced, shortly following the bookstore’s closure. “We've had people really challenge us,” she said, “like, ‘why aren't you open? Nobody can force you to be closed.’” Smith said she’s concerned about people not taking precautions seriously, once stores are allowed to reopen.
“We'll figure it out,” she said. “I've been around this rodeo for a while. I know it will work out eventually. But I know it's going to be a little stressful for my employees and me to figure out how to deal with all kinds of behaviors of people going forward. The majority of everyone will be just fine.”
“Local bookstores are here to fill your needs,” Nissel said. “If you need books, we can do it, and I think we can do it better than the internet can do it, in many instances. Amazon has made books non-essential in their business plan, so they’re not shipping as fast. People can call me, and if I have it in stock, they can have it.”