Laura Demers loves the bookstore experience so much, she’ll take road trips to indie shops throughout southwestern Ontario to soak in the full book-buying experience.
No ebooks, algorithms or online suggestions needed. For Demers, it’s all about the peaceful feeling of walking into a shop and letting the comfort, quiet and calmness take hold as she enjoys a leisurely literary exploration that usually ends with a stack of books being placed on the counter for purchase.
“When you go into these independent bookstores, it’s someone’s passion and I like being part of that passion,” Demers said. “And I love those creaky old wood floors and the towering books all around you.
“You feel like you could be buried in books and be perfectly happy.”
It has been a long two-month hiatus for bibliophiles yearning for that familiar new-book scent and welcome interaction that can often be found in bookstores. Many shops are now getting the green light to reopen, a most welcome development for retailers and an industry hit hard by the COVID-19 pandemic.
Noah Genner, the CEO of Booknet Canada, a not-for-profit trade association, said English-language bookstores across the country have seen unit sales slide 27 per cent overall since mid-March.
“That is significant,” he said from Toronto. “We haven’t seen a downward trend like that ever since I’ve been charting sales, which is 15 or 16 years.”
Specific numbers weren’t released, but Genner said sales bottomed out in early April but have since been on a slow, steady rise. He credits the retailers’ pivot to curbside pickup and home delivery for the uptick.
“People have told us in our other surveying that they’re going to continue to buy books at the level they were before this all started or even higher,” he said. “Very few people have said they’re going to buy (fewer) books.”
Janet North, who has owned Westminster Books in Fredericton, N.B., since 1977, said she reopened her store a week ago. Hand sanitizer was placed at the entrance, masks and gloves were available and arrows were added to the floor to help with physical distancing.
“Everybody was very excited,” she said. “They just couldn’t wait to get to the books because they haven’t touched them for (so) long.”
North said that while sales were down, the curbside pickup and delivery system seemed to work well. She was quite pleased the community has tried its best to support local business.
“I think we picked up a lot of new customers,” she said. “They keep advertising to buy local and everything so people were coming to us to order books.”
Susan Hare, the co-owner of Owl’s Nest Books in Calgary, said her store offered free delivery before the pandemic but they only had two or three takers per month.
Now they’re doing as many as 20 delivery orders a day.
“We don’t want people to feel like we’re happy that this has happened, but we are surviving and thriving,” she said. “It’s all due to our customers and all the new customers that are looking for books desperately.”
Hare said she planned to reopen the doors on Tuesday.
“I think books are such a tactile experience,” she said. “You can read online, you can read a Kindle or on a computer and it’s a wonderful experience. But the additional tactile experience brings comfort in a way that the electronic isn’t able to.”
Ellen Pickle, the owner of Tidewater Books & Browsery in Sackville, N.B., has enjoyed steady sales in recent weeks. She’s also planning to reopen Tuesday.
Customers will be encouraged to wear masks and gloves, she said.
“It’s an interesting challenge because pure book lovers love the experience of handling the books,” she said. ”I have a lot of people who have commented that they love the feel and the smell of a book. So telling people, ’No, sorry, I don’t want you touching them’ is counterintuitive.
“So I’m hoping that those folks who really love to come in on a Saturday and take an hour, browse around and thumb through some of the books, will take me up on the offer to wear the gloves.”
Curbside pickup has also been available at larger bookstores, with Indigo providing the service at select locations. The company said it will keep its customers updated when it has information on reopening dates.
“While all of our physical stores remain closed to the public at this time, we are actively taking steps to reopen once it’s permitted by government and all of our safety measures are in place,” public relations director Kate Gregory said in an email. “Our top priority is the health and safety of our customers, employees, and communities.
“We are working closely with health authorities to ensure we have all protocols in place to ensure as safe a store experience as possible.”
Demers, from Elora, Ont., is looking forward to making those 90-minute or two-hour road trips with her husband to discover those quaint bookstores throughout small-town Ontario.
They’ll often make a day of it, she said, perhaps making a visit to a local beach or enjoying a nice dinner before heading home — usually with many books in tow.
“For me, it’s possibility,” Demers said. “Not only the possibility of jumping into a book that’s going to take you away somewhere. But for me, it’s the possibility of that elusive one in 50. You know the books where you read 50 and there’s one that just takes your breath away.
“You’re jealous of the people who haven’t read it because they get to read it for the first time.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 17, 2020.
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Gregory Strong, The Canadian Press