With most of the country under some form of lockdown over the last two months, many people have found themselves with extra time on their hands. Some have turned to a home improvement project that was once an afterthought, others to a TV series they’d been waiting to binge and others to that stack of books piling up on the nightstand.
Social distancing is the kind of communal experience that has grown increasingly rare in a splintering media environment, but the types of books people have turned to during the COVID-19 pandemic is not.
“They wanted either chick lit, happy endings, happy books. They didn’t want anything but that,” said Shelley Lowe, who owns Monkey and Dog Books in Fort Worth. “Or they wanted death and devastation and terrible things happening.”
The Wild Detectives, an independent bookstore in Oak Cliff, launched a gag on social media, telling customers they were transitioning from a bookstore to a travel agency — something that would not appear to be a savvy business decision during a global pandemic. The link ultimately led readers to a book that took place in a different part of the world.
“I think escapism is definitely a huge, huge part of it,” said Miles Foster, manager of Recycled Books in Denton.
While it’s interesting to track what keeps people’s minds occupied during the pandemic, for independent bookstores across North Texas, figuring out how to negotiate the shutdown has proved to be a challenge.
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“Things have been extremely hard to navigate,” said Javier Garcia del Moral, owner of The Wild Detectives. “The bookstore has been totally shut down, still is shut down.”
He said his store has been limited to online orders, handled through bookshop.org, which supports independent bookstores. Customers could also purchase 6- or 12-month memberships to the store, which also has a bar and coffeeshop, that would offer 10% off books, records and beverages when it reopens, Garcia del Moral said.
Monkey and Dog Books was completely closed for a week to 10 days, Lowe said, before she started to take orders by phone and email.
She said her website is not set up to handle online orders, so at the end of each night, she and her husband would drive around the city, delivering books to customers.
“I have been astounded at how wonderful our customers have been. And a lot of new customers and — wow, never thought that would happen,” Lowe said. “So, my heart is full with how many wonderful people there have been that have said, ‘Yes, we want to support a bookstore.’”
Monkey and Dog Books is open again at 25% capacity with slightly reduced hours.
Recycled Books also closed completely for three or four weeks, relying on customers purchasing gift certificates, Foster said. Then, they started to offer “mystery bags,” for which a reader can select a genre and a price range and receive a bag full of books. Those can be picked up curbside or delivered.
“The first, I’d say, couple weeks that we were doing this, there was no way we’d catch up. We were days behind on filling orders, actually,” Foster said. “People (were) still so kind to us, saying how much they love the store and, not only buying the gift certificates, but of course all the mystery boxes, sometimes just to help us, even if they’re not necessarily interested in the subject.”
Foster said Recycled Books has even received orders for the mystery bags from as far away as New York and Minnesota.
But as Texas lifts restrictions on non-essential retail businesses, some want to wait and see what happens with the virus before they reopen.
Lowe said she is allowing customers into Monkey and Dog Books by appointment only. She is supplying gloves and hand sanitizer for customers as they peruse the shelves.
“The people who have come in, I have noticed that instead of taking a book from the shelf and looking at it, they stand and look at the shelf a long time before they choose to take one down,” Lowe said. "I appreciate that.”
Foster said Recycled Books would keep an eye on COVID-19 cases in Denton County and added they probably wouldn’t accept used books for some time.
“We still have to be very vigilant and so we’re making sure that we’re responsible not only to employees, but to, of course, our customers as well,” Foster said. “So we’re going to keep on just watching what experts say and try to open when we feel it’s going to be safe for everybody.”
Garica del Moral said he wanted to watch the number of cases in Dallas County over the next few weeks before he makes a decision about when to reopen The Wild Detectives. He is from Spain, and said he was paying attention to how retailers there handled reopening their businesses.
“For a bookstore, it’s very challenging in terms of our space isn’t so big, then you’re talking about books that most people, including myself I typically touch a book before I buy it,” Garcia del Moral said. “So, we’re thinking about all these things to see how we can implement a safe environment for everyone and at the same time make it sustainable.”
When they do reopen, all three bookstores said they would follow state and county guidance, likely provide gloves for customers, sanitize surfaces frequently and cut down on the areas where customers tend to congregate.