Tough Choices in Changing Times

Meghan Dietsche Goel -- March 20th, 2020

Echoing footsteps, shouted conversations across empty aisles, endless ringing of phones, rhythmic pumps of sanitizer dispensers, and the word “puzzle” seemingly wafting from every direction at once. These are the sounds of a once-bustling bookstore in the aftermath of a shift to mail and curbside delivery.

Like many stores around the country (and several of my ShelfTalker colleagues), BookPeople made the unprecedented and very difficult decision to close our doors to the public on Monday for the safety of our customers and staff. Implementing strict social distancing and sanitization procedures within the store, we quickly pivoted to a new curbside delivery service paired with free mail order fulfillment. Funneled through a staging table at the front of the store (stocked with sanitizing wipes, gloves, and hand sanitizer), orders for curbside delivery called in to our booksellers or ordered online have been stacking up all week. Upon each customer’s arrival, runners have then been donning their gloves and whisking pre-paid orders out to the waiting cars.

The outpouring of support from our customers, thanking us for our service and expressing their gratitude and appreciation for the store in general has been overwhelming and much appreciated. Molly, one of our seasoned adult booksellers, had a great moment this week when a regular customer recognized her voice over the phone and cheered because she loves Molly’s recommendations when she comes in. It’s wonderful to feel such kindness and goodwill from our community, which is really what makes it feel worth it to try to stay open in such uncertain times. 

On the kids’ side of things, there’s no surprise that it’s been all puzzles, coloring books, Klutz kits, and workbooks all the time. By the way, for those booksellers out there looking to recommend some great puzzles for kids, I personally recommend MudPuppy’s Pet Portraits 500 Piece Puzzle. The bold design, utilizing frames throughout, helps kids who might not have as much experience with larger challenges. And for those who want to level up a bit, MudPuppy’s Mammals with Mohawks makes a terrific second challenge. I even brought home one of our mini eraser Klutz kits to test out with my own kids this week, to delightful results. For a more surprising trend on the adult side of things, Rachel (one of our online order gurus) reported today that the book she’s personally received the largest number of requests for this week has been War and Peace. I guess people feel like now’s the perfect time to tackle hefty, long-ignored reading goals?

Salvador preps books for curbside pick-up.

In an alternate universe, this experiment might almost feel fun. We’re firing on all cylinders right now: filming book recommendations for instagram, pulling together our best content for Easter baskets that parents haven’t had a chance to fill, curating favorite new releases, working with local authors on special promotions, and running around like it’s the holiday season redux (just with lower sale volume). But there’s obviously nothing fun about the situation we find ourselves in right now, and we also know that this is just the beginning for us and for our community. The only thing we can know for certain is that everyone is going to need books more than ever over the next few weeks for all the things people have always needed books for: for inspiration, comfort, distraction, knowledge, and for navigating new challenges—like occupying restless kids whose worlds have suddenly, scarily closed in around them. Our mission for the foreseeable future is to be a resource for Austinites of all ages as we collectively figure out how to navigate this new normal, however we can. As one bookseller told me today, “It might sound cheesy, but I’m proud we’re doing this to help people out in this circumstance.”

So what’s next? Well, right now we’re taking this day-by-day. The truth is that like every retailer, every community, every family around the world, BookPeople is monitoring what makes the most sense in real time right now. We’ve known all week, as the local and national updates rolled in, that each new day might be the day that the risks of sending staff out to peoples’ cars outweighed the rewards.

And with community spread announced in Austin, today turned out to be the day. So, as of right now, BookPeople is cutting off curbside and moving to mail order only. We’ve had a lot of business coming in through our website, so hopefully that will keep us busy in the interim. What comes after that, and when, we’ll figure out as we go. But, whatever happens tomorrow, this last week has truly made me feel more palpably than ever that we are part of a community bound by books—as readers, as parents, as educators, and as booksellers—and that’s not something to ever take for granted. It’s something that really matters.

We can’t wait until we can open our doors and welcome readers in again. Until then, we’ll see you all online!

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