Independent bookstores have had to react to lots of changes in the bookselling market over the past decade, from the rise of big-box stores to the advent of e-readers. The latest challenge they are facing is selling books during a pandemic.
Frank Reiss owns A Cappella Books in Inman Park. He said that as restrictions on larger groups were put in place at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, his main concern was that the events they sell books for were going to stop.
“I thought even without imagining closing the store that would do enough damage to the business that it’d be catastrophic,” Reiss said.
Once shelter-in-place restrictions made it clear that the store would have to close to the public, Reiss’s wife suggested they begin offering free deliveries to customers in Atlanta.
“We turned into a book delivery service overnight, and it’s completely changed the way we’re operating right now,” Reiss said.
Most of A Cappella’s employees, both full- and part-time, have had to stay home. Reiss has been working with his adult daughters, one full-time employee and a part-time driver to keep the business running and getting books to customers.
From online order to drop-off, the process is completely contactless. Reiss said that it is lonely not having customers interacting with him in the store. Nonetheless, they are able to engage with customers on social media and through handwritten notes on their bags.
“The reaction we’re getting is just so heartwarming,” Reiss said. “The human contact of having a bag full of books dropped on your front porch with a handwritten note is just creating a great warm feeling between our customers and us.”
Reiss has also noted a change in what books are selling at the store. Sales are tracking more closely with the most popular books like Erik Larson’s “The Splendid and the Vile” and “Glass Hotel” by Emily St. John Mandel.
Books that help readers navigate a pandemic like Alison Roman’s cookbooks “Dining In” and “Nothing Fancy” as well as “The Women’s Heritage Sourcebook” about homesteading have also been in demand.
Novels that deal with pandemics directly are seeing good sales, too. Local author Thomas Mullen’s “The Last Town on Earth,” set during the 1918 Flu Pandemic and Daniel Defoe’s “A Journal of the Plague Year” are examples.
In addition to foot traffic coming to a halt at A Cappella, book events with authors have been postponed or canceled.
“We’re a little short-staffed to do much in the way of event planning,” said Reiss, noting that they will hold at least one virtual event featuring Billy Bragg in conversation with Atlanta-based music journalist Chad Radford.
With all these changes and not knowing how long the bookstore will remain closed, Reiss cannot say what the future looks like for A Cappella.
“I think we can survive this if it doesn’t go on too terribly long. It’s certainly not a practical thing to imagine, as we’re doing it right now, to go on and definitely,” he said. “It’s just too labor-intensive.”
Other independent bookstores around Atlanta are offering similar services to A Cappella Books. Here’s a non-exhaustive list of what your nearest bookseller is doing during shelter-in-place: