Whether ’tis nobler in the store to suffer
the slings and arrows of interminable phone calls,
or to wear masks against a sea of droplets,
and, wiping surfaces, (hope to) end them?
In a landscape of stores and businesses re-opening to the public with varying levels of safety precautions, we remain closed for in-store browsing, and the customers are growing restless. I understand why; going into the fourth month of COVID-19 restrictions, we all desperately want to feel ‘normal’ again, to broaden our circles of human interaction, to experience the small joys of discovery and connection that happen serendipitously in spaces that are not our own.
Our customers want to come in again. They want to see ALL the books, not just the ones they can peer at through the windows. They want to chat with my wonderful staff at our counters, not our curbside pickup spot. And some are getting a titch impatient that our doors are still closed.
Plenty of local stores, including a few bookstores, have opened their doors again, welcoming people in small numbers or by appointment only, and that is so tempting! All of the joy and many of the retail dollars come from actually having people in the store, browsing and chatting with us and finding unexpected treasures.
So why are we still closed to the outside world? Why, in fact, are we still only having one staff member per day inside the store (though we are hoping to change that soon)? It’s to do with the science.
Everything we know about the way the virus spreads indicates that space and plenty of ventilation are crucial to reducing risk, and we don’t have those luxuries. Our store is about 1460 square feet, in a lovely old building with several smallish, old-fashioned windows. For the browsing customer, inside for 15 or 20 minutes, the risk might be fairly low as long as we only let one to three people in the store at a time. But for my staff, in that sweet little space for eight to ten hours a day, the risk of exposure is just too high.
Current information tells us that the virus can live on paper surfaces for three hours, metal surfaces like door handles for three to seven days, wooden tabletops, two to four days, and the exteriors of face masks, seven days.
Bookstores are high-touch places, and while we could create ‘quarantine’ tables where customers can place items they’re picked up, I think that would only catch about 50%-60% of those items. Picking things up to look at them is so ingrained a habit we don’t even consciously register that we’re doing it, and I think many, many books, greeting cards, and gifts would be quickly considered and set back in place, largely without a customer even realizing they’d done it.
Then there are the aerosol droplets. Those are even more worrying. When I was hunting for the most recent update on what we know about transmission of the disease, I found the following in an MSN.com article from June 15:
The virus can linger as droplets in the air for up to three hours, according to the New England Journal of Medicine; and it can travel at least 13 feet by aerosols that are emitted by breathing or speaking — twice as far as established physical distancing guidelines, based on a report by the CDC.
Talking can release thousands of fluid droplets per second that can remain suspended in the air for 8 to 14 minutes, according to a study conducted under experimental conditions by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
All this puts customers, especially our many older and health-vulnerable customers, at risk. And the lengthy exposure in a small space puts my staff at even greater risk. They are already champions for adapting and adjusting to a completely different (and less joyful) way of selling books. I’m just not ready to ask them to risk their health and their families’ health when our ability to control that risk is still so uncertain. If we had a large store with plenty of space and big windows we could fling wide open, well, that might be a different story.
In the meantime, we are changing up displays to bring more books to the windows. A spinner near our pickup window once housed sidelines; now it hosts a slough of great titles by BIPOC authors. “Fun Stuff” and “Gift Ideas” cases now hold bestsellers. Some new cards from Sad Shop with really big font are ten feet away from the window but still readable.
All we can do for now is hum along as best we can and hope that our customers will appreciate that we are trying to maintain a safe space for all.