Ann Woodbeck and her husband, Dale, bought Excelsior Bay Books in January looking forward to a new adventure. Three months later they got one — not the kind they had in mind. When Gov. Tim Walz issued the statewide stay-home order, they had to close their shop.
But then came another surprise. After the initial shock, Excelsior Bay Books began flourishing.
“This community just rallied around the bookstore,” said Ann Woodbeck, who worked in the store for 12 years before the previous owners decided to sell it. “When people realized there was a chance that this little bookstore could disappear, they have just shown up in inspiring and amazing numbers.”
Many independent bookstores are faring better during the shutdown compared with other kinds of businesses in part because people have more time to read or assemble jigsaw puzzles.
“We’ve seen a decline in sales, but not as bad as I might have thought, honestly, given that we’re not open for customers to come in and browse,” said David Enyeart, manager of Next Chapter Booksellers in St. Paul.
The story is similar at Birchbark Books & Native Arts in Minneapolis: “We’re doing pretty good business with curbside pickup,” said employee Prudence Johnson. It probably doesn’t hurt that in March the store’s owner, prizewinning author Louise Erdrich, just published a new book, “The Night Watchman.”
Sales of Erdrich’s well-received novel have also been “just huge” at Next Chapter, too, Enyeart said.
Enyeart has noticed people buying more romances, thrillers and mysteries.
“Some of the appeal of [genre books] is that you know what you’re getting,” Enyeart said.
Like many retail outlets across the state, business plummeted immediately after the governor’s mandate. At friends’ urging, Ann Woodbeck launched a GoFundMe campaign. But as donations approached $17,000 of the $20,000 goal, Woodbeck shut it down.
She no longer needed it. Business was booming.
The upswing was dramatic. Early in the shutdown, “we would have two to five or six online orders a week,” she said. “Now we get between 12 to 20 a day. It’s unbelievable.”
Customers can buy books on the store’s website or by phone, then can get them shipped or make a curbside pickup, plucking their purchase from a blue box sitting on a little yellow bench in front of the store.
When Woodbeck compared sales during the shutdown to a similar period in 2018, she found revenue comparable, though a higher portion now comes from jigsaw puzzles, most likely as an activity families stuck at home can do together.
“So far I think we’re going to be able to weather the storm,” she said.
Independent booksellers were already a success story before the pandemic, said Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. Small shops once struggled to compete with the behemoth Amazon. But they’ve rebounded over the past decade, Obry said. She believes it’s connected to the way people feel about places, such as bookstores, where they can gather and interact with others.
Most gathering spots are, by their very nature, inaccessible during the shutdown. But having enjoyed them in the past, loyal visitors are stepping up to support them in the crisis.
At Excelsior Bay Books, Grace Mevissen of St. Louis Park is among those loyal customers. During normal times, Mevissen, a fifth-grade teacher, visits the store almost monthly to get books for her students, her mother and herself.
“I love walking in [to the shop]; it’s just the coziest place,” Mevissen said. She’s impressed with the selection and the employees’ willingness to help customers find the right books.
In recent weeks, Excelsior Bay Books has become a different kind of business than it was when the Woodbecks bought it.
“We’ve had to adapt pretty quickly just to keep the business solvent,” she said. “That’s taken a lot of hard work on our part. But a lot of this is the community’s embrace.”