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Book sales continue despite COVID-19

What type of mask would you expect a bookseller like Lara Harrison to be wearing? Here, she wears her book mask in her bookstore, Under Charlie’s Covers in Bernalillo. Photo by Gary Herron.

BERNALILLO — Lara Harrison has seen the forecast: that many independent booksellers during the pandemic won’t be around when — and if — it ends.

Undaunted, she recently signed a five-year extension for her used bookstore, Under Charlie’s Covers, 160 South Camino del Pueblo in Bernalillo.

After all, she reasoned, “I opened my business in 2009, when the whole economy tanked,” and she recalls people thinking her foolish to do so.

“It’s never been easy,” she said. “We need to have options.”

More importantly for her, “I still have to pay my bills.”

She’s learned a few things since COVID-19 attacked the world, from closing in mid-March to re-opening in May, and how key adjustments, innovations and communication are.

“We were shut down for two months, at which time I provided curbside pick-up and shipped books to my customers,” Harrison said. “While we were under stay-at-home orders, many people cleaned house and organized.

“My sales are up slightly from last year, even with the closure, but the amount of books traded in is up 25 percent from last year. While my sales are up since we reopened in May, our sales transactions are around 20 percent lower than last year, so we have less customers, but they are buying more,” she said.

“With the libraries essentially closed, we have seen more school-aged children trade and purchase books than we usually see,” Harrison said. “Quite a few of our customers told me Under Charlie’s Covers was the only store they had been to besides the grocery store. I really feel like many of our customers are taking ‘stay at home’ seriously. … (But) we can keep people safer in a small business than a Walmart or big-box store.”

“As far as pandemic books go, the most requested book was ‘The Great Influenza’ by John Barry.  Who knew I would need more than one copy? Also, ‘The Decameron’ by Giovanni Boccaccio; ‘Year of Wonders’ by Geraldine Brooks; ‘1984′ by George Orwell; and I sold all three copies of ‘The Plague’ that I had in stock.

“After a few weeks, pandemic books took a backseat to books about social justice and the Black experience with the murder of George Floyd,” Harrison noted. “I don’t have many books on viruses left; personally, I would not read any pandemic or plague books right now. With so much still unknown about COVID-19, they could be terrifying!”

Overall, this veteran bookseller said, “This is the perfect time to start reading again — it is a safe activity you can do at home while observing social distancing, escape from reality or learn something new. You can’t lose!”

Her store contains more than 40,000 books, and it won’t take her long to find a customer’s chosen title.

Ups and downs in nearby Los Ranchos

Paul Rhetts, who runs Rio Grande Press in Los Ranchos, said in a recent email to his customers and friends, “Sales are still way down; in my shop, they are down 98 percent when compared to last year during the same period. It is extremely difficult keeping one’s head above water with such limited sales. It is also hard to plan on what may come next. New title development is definitely hurt by the uncertainty of whether anything will even sell when it comes out.”

There was “good news” for Rhetts: Rio Grande Press’s tax liability to the state for the first half of the year “was a whopping $11.42.”

Book fairs and signing events, at which Rio Grande Press participates, have been canceled, and although there have been virtual events, “The public appears to have been somewhat slow to latch onto these innovative techniques.”

Also in Los Ranchos, on Rio Grande Boulevard, another small independent bookstore carries on, continuing author events virtually this month and in September, and probably throughout the fall.

“Most of the big publishers have already said, ‘We’re not sending anyone out on the road this fall,'” says Amanda Sutton, Bookworks events and marketing director. “I think we can expect virtual author tours for the rest of the year.”

Virtual events have been free through Bookworks and its publishing partners all spring and summer, with sales driven from its website (bkwrks.com). All of its virtual events take place on Zoom; to obtain links, RSVP to rsvp@bkwrks.com with the author’s name in the subject line.

Virtual events are recorded where possible and posted to Bookworks’ Facebook page, YouTube channels and website. Customers waiting for event books or online orders, including 2021 calendars, should await a call that the order is in before picking it up.

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