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Booksellers aim for happy ending to crisis

Jigsaw puzzles are big right now, as are bestsellers, children’s books and workbooks. Occasionally, there’s a request for a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus.
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Zoe Dickinson watches a customer pick up books as she takes a box out for shipping from Russell Books on Fort Street.

Jigsaw puzzles are big right now, as are bestsellers, children’s books and workbooks. Occasionally, there’s a request for a copy of The Plague by Albert Camus.

Despite layoffs, plummeting sales and fears for their own survival, the capital region’s independent bookstores are still finding ways to keep people amused and informed during the COVID-19 outbreak.

“Our customers are amazing,” says Jessica Walker, managing partner of Munro’s Books on Government Street. “We wake up every day to a lovely batch of web orders which we then run around madly trying to fill.”

In some cases, the orders offer unique insights into the pressures facing families in quarantine.

“I know, I’ve picked a couple of orders where it’s like a jigsaw puzzle, a kid’s book and a self-help relationship book,” says Colin Holt, manager of Bolen Books in Hillside Centre. “Ways to keep the kids busy and keep you and your partner sane.”

As the pandemic hit, the bookstores closed their doors for safety reasons and most have laid off staff. But they’re still processing online and phone orders for shipping at little to no cost.

Tanner’s Books in Sidney, for instance, will deliver free to Sidney residents in self-isolation or living in a senior’s residence.

“It’s a no-contact delivery service,” says owner Cliff McNeil-Smith, who is also Sidney’s mayor. “We just deliver to the front desk of the senior citizens’ [home] and we just drop and phone when we’re at a person’s residence.”

Like most independent bookstores, Tanner’s staff know a lot of their customers personally and are going out of their way for them right now, McNeil-Smith says.

“There’s a lot of people who’ve been reading newspapers, magazines and books for decades and it’s tough not to have access, particularly with the libraries closed.”

For those unwilling to wait for home delivery, people can still pick up books at most stores.

Russell Books on Fort Street has even set up a “contact-free pick-up window” that has done a brisk business in recent days.

Munro’s customers can knock and enter to pick up their books.

And Bolen’s faithful can collect their orders at the front door from noon to 2 p.m. Monday to Friday. Customers pay electronically so that no cash changes hands, and only one person at a time is allowed in the foyer to meet the province’s social-distancing rules.

“Compared to what we would normally process in a day, it’s not many people,” says Holt. “But we’re getting things to some. We’re going through a lot of jigsaw puzzles right now, and a lot of kids’ workbooks.”

In many cases, bookstore managers and staff are continuing to serve the public despite mounting anxiety about their own futures.

“It’s going to be hard for us,” says Andrea Minter, manager of Russell Books. “The pickup from the door is not going to pay the rent.

“I don’t need to make a profit at this time of year with what’s going on. That’s not my concern. My concern is just being able to pay the bills.”

Walker has similar worries about how Munro’s will survive an outbreak that has effectively banished tourists from the downtown.

And as much as she appreciates the continuing support of loyal customers, the pick-up and online business isn’t sustainable, she says.

“I’m really trying to look at the longer-term, trying to look at what is the six-month picture,” she said.

“The next month … is not going to be great either. But I feel like everyone needs to be looking at the fall and their planning for now needs to include surviving for the next six months.”

McNeil-Smith offered a similar assessment, noting that online and phones orders represent “really just a trickle” compared with normal sales.

“We’re just like most businesses, trying to look ahead to see how long this will go for, come up with our business continuity plan and then what our recovery will look like when we do get back to re-opening again, which could be many weeks or a few months down the road.”