Essays

An Ongoing Graveyard Shift: Selling Books in Chicago in a Plague Year

Even in the best of times, bookstores have it rough. Just last year the American Booksellers Association reported American bookstore sales were down by 7.6 percent from 2018, sales sliding from 2018’s $1,270 million to $1,174 million. As for independent bookstores. Ye gods. Competing with the remaining big boxes and fighting against the never-ending Amazon current is tough enough—but selling in the midst of a pandemic? Among the many small-businesses taking a big hit during the era of self-isolation, independent bookstores are facing a month (or more) of no long-time or walk-in customers. In a time of abundant opportunities to hunker down and curl up with a good book, localized sources are tantalizingly out of reach for both seller and buyer. But booksellers are crafty folks, and I asked several Chicago merchants how they’ve been getting books into readers’ hands.

Danielle Mullen is the founder of Semicolon Books (515 N. Halsted St.), Chicago’s only back woman-owned bookstore, which first opened its doors last year in July 2019. Originally from Jacksonville, FL, Mullen sought to create, per the site, a bookstore that provided “(h)er favorite museum/library/bookstore all rolled into one”. Recent events, of course, have put paid to the in-person experience.

“My store has reacted by closing down all in-person operations completely as of Saturday, March 14,” says Danielle. A not-ideal situation for her and her five employees. Mullen states that the “closure is affecting them by making them less sure of their future in bookselling, and life in general, honestly.”

“I have agreed to pay them for 20 hours per week until we reopen, but that pay is going to quickly begin coming out of my own pocket, which concerns me,” she continues. “Being unsure of whether or not my new store will even be able to make it through this crisis is maddening!”

The Semicolon online store remains open though, and she encourages customers to purchase gift cards for themselves and others, and to pass along word about the store for when the crisis passes and she reopens.

Quimby’s manager Liz Mason speaking via Zoom

Quimby’s (1854 W. North Ave.), local merchants of the cool, strange, and bizarre in paperback and hardcover form, have likewise shuttered as of March 18. But it’s business as (un)usual on the virtual plane. Store manager Liz Mason continues to report to the store to fulfill orders that arrive by mail, email, and phone, either mailing out packages or providing curbside service. After hearing about it on public radio, Mason has incorporated shopping through the Zoom video conferencing app. Sales are slow, but Quimby’s has a fiercely loyal clientele.

A few supporters of the store have stepped up and bought gift certificates on our website to use once the crisis is past us,” says Mason. Speaking over the Zoom channel, she wore an entirely appropriate INTROVERT shirt. “As of this moment it’s just me and I’m trying to do as much as I can to accept shipments, check in the new stuff, put that stuff online for ordering, et cetera. Customers can support us by following any of those avenues to purchase stuff. We wish everybody warmth and safety.”

Quimby’s is officially semi-open from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on weekdays, and Mason can be reached through Zoom through Quimby’s info@quimbys.com email address.

Note: Shortly before publication, Mason announced the introduction of curated packages of zines or Qustomized Quimby’s Quarantine Zine Packages” for $25. “We’ll select $25 worth of zines…if you tell us what kind of stuff you like in the ‘Notes’ section [of the order form]…and try to fit it in a Priority Mail envelope,promises the Quimby’s site. Let us be your zine and mini-comics sommelier.”

Bucket ’O Blood Books and Records (3182 N. Elston Ave) is a few miles north of Quimby’s, somewhat younger, but no less idiosyncratic and eccentric in its stock of sci-fi, fantasy, horror, and records. Owners Grant and Jennifer McKee closed up the store on St. Patrick’s Day. First they offered curbside pickup and delivery, but switched to online orders for delivery only as of March 21. Closing has not been great for business, but being a mom and pop shop offers one cold comfort:

“We are owner-operated so thankfully there are no employees to lay off,” says McKee. “We’re obviously affected greatly by the closure, as we rely on in-store shopping for most of our sales. However, my partner and I are staying busy listing as much inventory as possible online for at-home shoppers.”

McKee suggests two ways to support the store, either by purchasing gift cards to use after COVID-19 runs its course, or shopping for vinyl on their Discogs store. McKee also says they’ll continue to be available to customers through email, texting, and direct messaging “at any time if they need book, music or movie recommendations while they are self-isolating.”

Comics fans may lack for the haven of their favorite shops, but several merchants have made adjustments to ensure customers get their four-color fix. One of the city’s oldest comic book stores (and Quimby’s sister shop) Chicago Comics (3244 N. Clark St.) is most-definitely closed, but owner Eric Kirsammer informed me by email that new comics are still arriving, and mail order and phone order/curbside pickup are both available. The store’s site reports:

“For now, someone will be at the shop to fulfill shipments and special orders for pick-up until we’re told not too. Thank you for working with us and being amazing customers. Stay Safe & diligent folks!

Challengers Comics + Conversation in Bucktown (1845 N. Western Ave.) and River North (750 N Franklin St.) recently and regretfully closed, but have found a unique way to provide comic readers with the latest in sequential art.

We are closed. We have to be,” says co-owner Patrick Brower, “As much as we love what we do and feel we actively brighten the lives of the people that shop with us, we are a nonessential business, so we are closed for the duration of the Illinois shut down.”

The shop is largely run by Brower and co-owner W. Dal Bush now. They have six part-time employees, but all were given the option to not come in during the early stages of the statewide shutdown. At first Challengers fulfilled orders by phone for get-in-and-get-out-quick in-store pick-up; handed off deliveries to Uber and Lyft drivers; or simply mailed orders. They also maintain a regularly updated list of graphic novels for sale. 

More recently, Challengers made arrangements with Chicago Board Game Cafe (a block away at 1965 N. Milwaukee Ave.) to hand off comics ordered by phone through the restaurant’s walk-up window. Locals can get their daily brief stroll in the sunlight in before retreating to their personal Sanctum Sanctorum with a stack of funny (or not-so-funny) books.

*****

Clearly there are more dire things to worry about these days—matters of life or death in the literal sense. But while keeping yourself and others healthy, remember that COVID-19 can kill small businesses as well. The charm of self-isolation may be wearing thin, but has there ever been a better time for the symbiotic relationship between bookstore and book reader? Give your favorite local book merchant a call, and maybe an order, today.

 

SPECIAL NOTE: If other book stores want to let Third Coast Review know how they’re keeping in touch with customers, please contact me at dan@mrdankelly.com. Send me a few sentences on what you’re doing and your contact information and I’ll run it here.

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