In the few months it was open before the pandemic closed its doors, Epilogue Books Chocolate Brews was full of people: customers browsing the shelves, community events held around the coffee tables, students crowding into the cafe with laptops and lattes.
“Obviously, we have lost that shtick,” said Mason Hamberlin, a book buyer and lead for Epilogue.
Hamberlin said although Epilogue has closed its physical doors, the company is adapting to challenges caused by the pandemic by using social media to stay in conversation with the community, and doing a lot of curbside pickups.
Hamberlin said Epilogue has sold more “surprise books” through the pandemic.
“It’s a way to recommend books without doing it in person,” they said. “We dig through our own knowledge of books and recommend what we know. It’s not quite a conversation, but it’s something.”
In addition to keeping the bookstore operating, Hamberlin said Epilogue has recently started accepting takeout orders for churros, pastries and coffee. People can call in or order online and pick up at the front door.
“The pandemic has definitely impacted our operations because people are not out and about,” Hamberlin said. “We’ve had to readjust our model, but we’re turning it around pretty quickly.”
Hamberlin said they want people to realize that although Amazon is a convenient place to order books, shopping at local bookstores keeps jobs in the community.
“It allows our employees and wonderful booksellers to keep eating and paying rent,” Hamberlin said.
Like many bookstores, Epilogue was among the nonessential businesses mandated to close until May 8 by Gov. Roy Cooper's stay-at-home order.
Although retail stores are allowed to open at half capacity under Cooper's Phase 1 executive order, which extends until May 22, some book retailers, like Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill, are choosing to remain closed for the time being.
Flyleaf closed its store floor on March 16, and since then, has taken orders by phone and from their website.
Jamie Fiocco, who owns Flyleaf with her husband and serves as the president of the American Booksellers Association, said about 85 percent of Flyleaf’s orders during the pandemic, which have been distributed by curbside and mail, have been placed within 10 to 15 miles of the store.
“We’ve been selling a lot of puzzles and books,” she said. “Interestingly, people are reading books that reflect the world now with the pandemic and sci-fi, or are on the other end reading joyful books not dealing with illness or anxiety. Nothing suspenseful.”
Fiocco said Flyleaf, which had 15 employees when it shut down, now has a staff of eight, but most of the people they had to lay off were leaving at the end of the school year.
“There are only five or six of us at a time in about 7,200 square feet of space,” she said.
Although she said she is looking to rehire the staff that was laid off soon, Fiocco said they will not reopen the store until they're sure it is safe.
Katie Loovis, vice president for external affairs at The Chamber For a Greater Chapel Hill-Carrboro, said it is important for community members to consider the positive impact on the nearby economy when buying local, especially during such economically unconventional times.
“For every dollar you spend at a small local business, 67 cents stays in the local community and supports local jobs and supports the local character of our community,” Loovis said. “When you spend it here, we keep it here, so keep it local.”
Independent bookstores are not the only local book distributors facing challenges during the pandemic.
Ginger Young is the founder of Book Harvest, a Durham-based literacy nonprofit. Young said since the pandemic, Book Harvest has not been able to provide its usual services, such as bringing books and literacy coaching into people’s homes, or providing free books at their office or in partner locations like laundromats and family health centers.
Despite the challenges, Book Harvest is partnering with Durham FEAST and the Durham Public Schools Foundation to provide books alongside weekly food deliveries to families in need through the end of May.
Although she wrote in Book Harvest's blog that this summer may be devastating to students' academic progress, Young said the nonprofit's recent surge in book donations gives her hope for progress through the pandemic.
“It is encouraging to me how many innovative ways we are responding to this time of intense crisis,” she said. “It feels important to figure it out and we are making great strides in that every day.”
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