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The shops started to close two weeks ago. 

Bookish in East Atlanta made the tough decision to close its doors to walk-in business on March 15, and others, including Little Shop of Stories, A Cappella Books and Charis Books and More temporarily shuttered too, in an effort to protect the health of employees, customers and the community.

“It’s scary as a new business to make that kind of decision,” says Bookish owner Kendra Lee. “But we felt it was the best thing we could do for our community — especially for any immunocompromised or elderly customers. We 100 percent believe in flattening the curve.”

The impact of closing for an unknown amount of time is a dire reality for any business, but especially so for local, independent shops. In addition to a potentially critical loss in sales, for places like A Cappella Books, the decision to close also meant reducing the hours of part-time employees or placing them on leave, according to Loring Kemp, who does social media, marketing and events for A Cappella. 

Bookish owner Kendra Lee.

Bookish owner Kendra Lee has made personal deliveries for online orders during the coronavirus crisis.

Says E.R. Anderson, executive director of Charis Books’ nonprofit arm, Charis Circle, “This is a really scary time for small businesses and nonprofits because, as people are beginning to understand, we are the cornerstones of cities and neighborhoods, but we operate within the thinnest of margins and flimsiest of safety nets.”

A global pandemic has the ability to stretch those margins to their  limits, creating the possibility of an uncertain future for some of Atlanta’s favorite booksellers. 

The good news, though, is that even in a scary international health emergency and self-quarantine, people are still reading books. A lot of books, actually. They’re turning to books as an escape, as a way to engage their minds, to fend off feelings of loneliness and isolation, to teach kids who can no longer go to school. And many are choosing to buy those books from the local bookstores that need the support the most. 

“One of the benefits of being a 45-year-old community-built and funded institution is that our community members — who live all over the country and around the world, not just in Atlanta or Decatur — want to help make sure we continue to exist after this is over,” says Anderson. “And that we can continue to pay our booksellers and nonprofit staff through the quarantine. So people are mindfully buying books from us.”

The books Charis customers are buying most right now are by queer authors and authors of color, says Anderson. These authors “offer ways of being outside the traditional extractive capitalist system that is to blame for the extremity of the situation we find ourselves in today with COVID-19.”

With school and library closures, Charis also has seen a surge in sales of diverse children’s books. They’ve become a true resource for LGBTQ families, black families, other families of color, and families of various religious and spiritual backgrounds who want books that can comfort children in a frightening time. 

Charis Books and More has temporarily closed at its new location at Agnes Scott College in Decatur but is offering many online services. (Photo by Nneka Nwaobi)

A Cappella has seen a similar level of support from customers and communit members, according to Kemp, “mostly via post reshares and stories on social media from our followers, our programming partners and several neighboring small businesses. We have them all to thank for the recent uptick in our online business.”

Online sales are obviously critical for these bookstores at this time, and they’ve each come up with creative solutions for how to sell their wares and maintain a connection to the community. Most are offering intown book deliveries for orders placed online, for example. 

Onyew Kim, one of our store managers, is hitting the streets by bike several times daily to deliver books to customers, Kemp says.

Lee has dropped off book orders to her customers in Ormewood Park, East Atlanta Village, Grant Park and Decatur. She stays directly connected to customers via text, Instagram and Facebook. 

“We send pictures of our shelves and offer up recommendations,” Lee says. “We FaceTimed with one of our favorite EAV families — their kids, ages 4 and 7, shopped [virtually] while I walked them around the store. And we’re taking lots of special orders via text or email.”

Little Shop of Stories in Decatur, which is closed until at least March 29, has booksellers ready to take over-the-phone and online orders every day from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., and is offering free same-day delivery in 30030 and neighboring ZIP codes. Eagle Eye Books, also in Decatur, offers free shipping for online orders of more than $10 and curbside pickup.

Atlanta indie bookshop A Cappella.

A Capella Books and other indie bookshops offer personalized shopping and delivery of books during the coronavirus crisis.

Good books are a balm during  uncertain times. The local shops that sell them are critical to the strength and health of the communities they serve. As Little Shop noted on its website, “Amazon and big-box chains will survive this crisis. Many independent businesses will not,” which means these bookstores will continue to need the support of those communities in the months to come, as they work to weather this storm. 

Here’s how to help:

Stock up on books. Continuing to support your favorite bookstore in the weeks and months to come via online or over-the-phone purchases of books and gift cards is the best and most effective way to ensure its survival. 

In addition to books, Bookish is also offering Bookish swag for sale, says Lee, and “would love for folks to buy T-shirts — pandemic special, $15 — mugs and notebooks. It helps us get the word out about the store and gives us a financial boost.”

Charis Books is asking people to consider becoming Cornerstone monthly donors to Charis Circle for as little as $10 per month to help cover overhead costs of their nonprofit work. 

“What many folks might not realize is the extent to which Charis Books and Charis Circle operate as a social-services referral service and safety net for many people in the city,” says Anderson. “People come to us looking for referrals to reliable services for everything from homeless and domestic violence shelters to affording counseling, lawyers and health care. We worry a lot about what it means to not be open to the public in these days when people are going to need a lot of help.”

Share the shops’ books and events on social media. Sing their praises, share their events and give shout-outs to help remind others that these stores are still selling and still need the support. Encouraging friends to shop local instead of going for the larger corporate retailers is also a big help.  

Participate in shops’ online events and use their online resources. Stores like Bookish and A Cappella are working to pivot to online-based writing groups, story times for kids, book clubs and Facebook groups as a way to stay connected to customers. These virtual events and meetups keep people connected to their literary communities when social distancing requires physical separation. They also help keep the community spirit of a local bookshop alive at a time when it’s needed more than ever.

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In times like these, when we are separated by necessity, ArtsATL is needed more than ever. Please consider a donation so we can continue to highlight Atlanta’s creative community during this unprecedented period.

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