Go buy a book: Local publishers, bookstores cope amid COVID-19 outbreak

  • Collective member Steve Strimer with some of the books published by Levellers Press in Amherst. Though the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown bookstores and publishers into turmoil, Levellers may be better able to ride out the storm, since it designs and prints its own books.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Collective member Steve Strimer with some of the books published by Levellers Press in Amherst. Though the COVID-19 outbreak has thrown bookstores and publishers into turmoil, Levellers may be better able to ride out the storm, since it designs and prints its own books.  GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • A title from Interlink Publishing in Northampton. Editor and publisher Michel Moushabeck says the company has seen an increase in online sales but otherwise is “strategizing every day” to decide how to handle the disruptions caused by COVID-19. Courtesy Interlink Publishing Group, Inc.

  • Joan Grenier, right, owner of the Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, and Hannah Moushabeck, children’s department director, at a past event at the store. The Odyssey had raised over $57,400 as of April 14 through a GoFundMe page to counteract the economic fallout from the COVID-19 outbreak. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Gavin Grant, co-owner of Book Moon in Easthampton, is seen here last September with his daughter, Ursula, and Eileen Corbeil. Corbeil is the former owner of White Square Books, from whom Grant and his wife, writer Kelly Link, bought the store and renamed it. GAZETTE FILE PHOTO

  • Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, like bookstores across the country, has been shuttered by COVID-19 and is directing customers to its website to order books online. STAFF PHOTO/STEVE PFARRER

  • Broadside Bookshop in Northampton, like bookstores across the country, has been shuttered by COVID-19 and is directing customers to its website to order books online. STAFF PHOTO/STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer
Published: 4/14/2020 10:38:24 AM

Amid a pandemic that has forced people to stay at home and led to the cancellation of sports, arts events and public gatherings, reading a book might be one of the best options for entertainment.

But the COVID-19 outbreak has also shuttered bookstores, threatening the economic viability of independent booksellers in particular. Book publishers face difficult decisions about releasing new titles, as bookstores cancel orders and public readings, and the novel coronavirus disrupts book distribution and printing.

In the Valley, however, there are a few hopeful signs that, as much as COVID-19 is hurting the book business, an area that prizes books, writing and reading might be in a somewhat better position to weather the storm.

The Odyssey Bookshop in South Hadley, which on March 30 launched a $60,000 public fundraising campaign to stave off losses, had collected over $57,400 as of Tuesday, through a GoFundMe site. Store officials also say that since March 17, when Odyssey was forced to close its doors, online book orders have increased from an average of less than a dozen per day to over 100.

“The hope these numbers have given us during this uncertain time is truly priceless,” Sadie Trombetta, a member of the fundraising team, wrote on the Odyssey’s GoFundMe site. “We’ve said it before, but we’ll never get tired of saying thank you to our community.”

Michel Moushabeck, publisher and editor of Interlink Publishing in Northampton, said he’s also been buoyed not just by an increase in online sales, but by the many well-wishes he and his staff have received via email and social media.

“The support has been so very heartening,” Moushabeck said in a phone interview from his home in Leverett. “We’re fortunate to live and work in this area.”

Interlink, an independent publisher founded in 1987, is a family-run business. Moushabeck said his 10 employees are still working, mostly from home, though one staff member works at the company’s warehouse and main office, where he prepares online orders for shipping. Moushabeck said the weeks and months ahead are full of uncertainty, and he ticked off a number of ways in which book sales have been hurt.

Though Interlink handles distribution itself in the U.S. — right now the company is offering free shipping to American customers — the distribution of its books overseas “has come to a halt,” Moushabeck noted. The company publishes a variety of material, including books from Middle Eastern writers that have been translated into English. However, the translation of many of its newer projects is currently on hold. The company is also unsure of how to deal with upcoming printing bills for its spring releases.

Nationwide, many bookstores have canceled orders of new books as they struggle with reduced sales, and Moushabeck said that’s one of the factors he and staff deal with in daily strategizing sessions. “We’re not sure right now what to do about our fall releases, if they’ll come out as planned,” he said.

In addition, Amazon, the biggest online retailer of books, announced last month it was deprioritizing the sale of books and other items to concentrate on shipping medical supplies and essential household items. “That affects everyone in the book industry,” said Moushabeck.

Rolling with the punches

Steve Strimer, a worker-owner with Levellers Press in Amherst, said independent publishers such as Moushabeck and his collective may be a little better positioned to deal with the problems created by COVID-19, as they operate on a smaller scale and don’t have to work with big distribution companies or outside consultants. For instance, Levellers Press, an offshoot of Collective Copies in Amherst and Northampton, prints and designs its own books, and it also handles some of its distribution, including through Amazon.

And though only a handful of employees from Collective Copies are working on site, others are at home coming up with designs and layouts for new books that Levellers — the company primarily works with Valley writers — intends to bring out this year. “Right now we have more time to review manuscripts, too,” Strimer noted.

Yet the long-term outlook for both publishing and bookstores “is really uncertain,” he added. “No one really knows how this whole thing will play out.” Strimer also said Levellers is planning to do virtual launches for its new books and their writers in the absence of live events.

In Easthampton, Gavin Grant and his wife, fiction writer Kelly Link, are trying to balance the management of their bookstore, Book Moon, and their publishing business, Small Beer Press. The latter, which specializes in literary fantasy and science-fiction titles, has pushed back production of a few of its upcoming books, Grant said in a recent phone call, since most stores aren’t taking additional orders. The same is true for Book Moon, he said, though he added that the store’s online sales have increased in the past month.

Grant said he and Link are trying to maintain a sense of humor amid the grim, day-to-day toll of the news. They’ve also been buoyed by the support their bookstore has received from local customers. “We’re shipping a lot of orders right here in Easthampton,” he said. “We’re so grateful.”

But Grant added that online commerce can’t make up for the loss of community that an independent bookstore offers, with book readings and other events, nor can it really match the strength of in-store sales. “In the store, you can spend time looking at different books if you’re not sure what you want … you can’t really browse like that online.”

A number of stories in the national press have detailed the fallout from COVID-19 among bookstores. Last month, the Strand Bookstore in New York City, a place with a legendary “18 miles of books,” laid off 188 employees, though some have subsequently been rehired. Various online funds for independent booksellers have been created, including by the American Booksellers Association (ABA), although a March 28 report in the Los Angeles Times said the amounts raised were far less than what’s needed by the 1,880 stores the ABA represents.

Messages from the Gazette to other local bookstores, such as Broadside Bookshop in Northampton and Amherst Books, were not returned. The websites for those stores say they’re open for business online and are encouraging people to keep looking to them for their reading needs.

“We want to thank you for all the understanding, support and encouragement you have shown us during this extraordinary time,” reads a message on Broadside’s website. “We will be there for you as soon as we can, as you have been there for us.”

Moushabeck and Strimer suggest there could be a silver lining to the COVID-19 crisis if customers end up committing more deeply to small publishers and bookstores. For instance, Moushabeck said that his brother Gabriel runs Booklink, a small bookstore in Northampton’s Thornes Market, which has been closed since mid-March. But the store’s online sales are part of a new service called Bookshop, a distributor that works exclusively with independent booksellers, returning 30% of all sales to the stores and handling the processing of orders and shipping.

Andy Hunter, the CEO and founder of Bookshop, said in a recent interview with the online journal InsideHook that he created the company earlier this year as a means for independent booksellers to bypass Amazon for online sales.

“If we do see some additional movement in support of small bookstores, that will be one good thing to come out of this really difficult time,” said Moushabeck. In the meantime, he added, “I’m just so grateful for the support we’ve received, and my most heartfelt wish is that everyone will be safe and will get through this.”

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.


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