It’s slow going for most Central Oregon bookstores. Typically this time of year, tourists and locals alike duck into one of the local independent shops for some sweet air conditioning and to scour the shelves looking for their next summer read. As with everything this year, things are looking different.
“Folks from out of town are still coming in,” said Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe owner Tom Beans in an email, “Foot traffic is definitely down Downtown but the folks that are stopping in are still walking out with sizable stacks of books.”
For the locals, Beans says they are still hesitant to make the journey back to the physical store so they are opting for its pickup option. But even that has died down.
“Online ordering in general seemed to slow right about the time kids were done with school and folks started getting outside again, but that was to be expected,” he said.
Dudley’s has also altered its way of business, shortening hours, cutting back on what’s offered in the cafe and removing the tables that customers used to dive into a coffee and a new book.
“So much of Dudley’s was about being a ‘third space,’ and those don’t really exist right now,” said Beans.
The same can be said for Sunriver Books and Music. Co-owner Deon Stonehouse is worried that the store may not survive all this.
“This is such a strange time, and our priority is to keep our community and our readers and our staff safe,” she said, adding that while they started out limiting their shop to 10 customers at a time, they’ve since restricted it even further, to just seven to maintain social distancing.
For Stonehouse, though, the hard choice is clear, “Between losing the bookstore … and knowing that I was making people sick, there’s no contest,” she said. “I’ll err on the side of keeping people safe.”
This time of year, the store would normally be bustling along with the rest of the Sunriver Village shopping area where the store is located.
“Sunriver is more of a straight-on resort area than, say, Bend or Sisters. … We live on the summer,” Stonehouse said, adding, “We’re doing everything we can to keep people safe, and that does not result in book sales.”
The shop does, however, continue to offer a curbside pickup option, and when the shutdowns began to lift, Stonehouse called Deschutes County Health for guidance on reopening to the public and took recommendations from her customers and book club members who outlined their concerns as well.
“We instituted every single one of those recommendations,” she said, including using tongs to hand out dog treats to visiting pooches and creating more airflow to help dissipate the aerosols from cleaning products.
In Sisters, Paulina Springs Books had to start a Go Fund Me page when gloomy forecasts of closure were floated. Owner Lane Jacobson started the fundraiser in May with the goal of reaching $75,000 to help keep the shop going. Jacobson said, “Between the GoFundMe itself and checks mailed to the store and the boost in sales that we had especially when the campaign was launched we hit our goal,” adding, “We’re in a good position to weather whatever this storm has in store for us.”
During the shutdown, the store was able to get by with pickup and delivery options implemented, but it was hard.
“We didn’t and still don’t have a robust online presence,” Jacobson said. So they turned to Bookshop.org, a national nonprofit that connects consumers with independent bookstores, allowing them to buy directly. Dudley’s Bookshop Cafe also uses the site for online orders.
When Phase 1 began and the shop reopened, it adapted.
Jacobson and his team turned the inside of the store into a kind of warehouse and met customers at the door who would then inquire about the books they wanted to ask for recommendations. Then an employee would go into the store, fetch the book and bring it back to the customer.
“Just from an employee stamina and mental health perspective,” Jacobson said, “It was really hard because … it was a combination of being both a server, where you’re running around grabbing things for people, and retail/customer service, which can be difficult at the best of times.”
As of last week, however, the shop is now open (with restrictions) for the public to peruse on their own.
But foot traffic is still down from a town that relies heavily on tourism and, in particular, one day out of the year to bring them in: the Sisters Outdoor Quilt Show which was canceled this year due to COVID-19.
“From the businesses that I’ve spoken with and from our own sales alone,” Jacobson said, “We were down about 50% on last year’s Quilt Show Weekend.”
Brandon Weimer, owner of Redmond’s Herringbone Books, has also seen less foot traffic as a result of COVID-19.
“Being downtown during closures when it’s 70 degrees plus and normally you would see people walking their dogs or going for a stroll,” he said, “It’s kind of (like) tumbleweeds tumbling through downtown.”
For Weimer and the store, the shutdowns brought a boost to online sales and the chance for him to offer both curbside pickup options and personal delivery.
“I was driving all the way out to Prineville, to Eagle Crest. … For me if I’m able to, you know, get a book into an adult’s hands, a child’s hands, whatever, that helps them you know alleviate stress or just escapism. You know I was happy to do that.”
Now that the shop is open to the public “it’s good days, it’s bad days and everything in between,” according to Weimer. He credits his customers’ concern over this being the only bookstore in Redmond as one reason for continued, albeit slower, sales.
“If we were to close, unless someone were to reopen something, they would have to go into Bend and, yeah, kind of the Redmondites, so to speak, have (fewer) reasons they would want to go into Bend. So they’re pretty adamant that we stay,” he said with a laugh.
Roundabout Books in Bend’s Northwest Crossing neighborhood has seen its figures nearly equal to that of last year thanks mostly to online orders and pickup options.
“Our sales every day have been pretty close to what we’re used to during the summer,” said owner Cassie Clemans, “And (we) have a lot of support from our local customers.”
While foot traffic is down, it does increase during the Northwest Crossing Farmers Market held on Saturdays.
“Our store has a limit,” she said, “I decided our store has a capacity of 12 people, including staff. So we never have more than 12 people in the store at one time.” The only time the shop nears that limit is on farmers market days, but according to Clemans, the rule has not been hard to maintain.
When the shutdowns began, Roundabout Books was one of the first to switch their events and book club meetings to virtual gatherings, reaching out to authors to hold Zoom talks instead of holding them in store.
“Some authors didn’t want to, and that’s fine so we just said, ‘We’ll reconnect with you in 2021.’ … But we’ve had a few authors who were up for it,” Clemans said, “So yeah we’re giving it a go.”
The store will host one of these author events at 1 p.m. Saturday with writer Ellen Waterston discussing her book “Walking the High Desert.”
“I think Ellen Waterston will be our biggest one,” Clemans said.
Despite the varied traffic and uncertainty in some of the local independent bookstores, Herringbone owner Weimer is optimistic, “People are still reading, which is great.”
He even wants to host an ice cream social as soon as he is able to again to thank loyal customers who have supported his shop.
This summer has also shifted what many people pick up or order from these shops.
Every single owner stated that some of the best-sellers since June have been anti-racism books, which, for Roundabout Books specifically, include “How to Be an Antiracist,” by Ibram X. Kendi; “White Fragility,” by Robin DiAngelo and “So You Want to Talk About Race,” by Ijeoma Oluo.
Another popular nonfiction book that readers are devouring at Paulina Springs, Sunriver Books and Music and Roundabout Books is “The Splendid and the Vile,” by Erik Larson.
Tuesday was the official launch date for Mary Trump’s book “Too Much and Never Enough,” and it had great interest at both Herringbone and Roundabout books.
Dudley’s Bookstore Cafe lists Glennon Doyle’s “Untamed” and James Nestor’s “Breath” among its top nonfiction books with owner Beans adding that “It’s a weird summer as publishers pushed a lot of their big summer titles into the fall/winter season hoping they might garner bigger sales than they would have during these early days of the pandemic when lots of states had stay-at-home orders.”
But people are still very interested in the classic summer fiction reads, too — ones that offer a kind of escapism.
Clemans listed off “The Guest Book,” by Sarah Blake; “The Nickel Boys,” by Colson Whitehead and “American Dirt,” by Jeanine Cummins, for books that continue to be large draws, along with newcomer “The Vanishing Half,” by Brit Bennett. Beans included “Mexican Gothic,” by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
Weimer noted that many are picking up science fiction and fantasy reads adding, “Maybe with everything going on, the last thing they wanted was a dose of reality.”
He said that the books sold at Herringbone vary across the board, but that self-help, education, cooking, political and equality books have remained largely popular over the summer.
“However you go about it, get a book in your hand and step into another world,” said Sunriver Books and Music’s Stonehouse, “Because that’s what books allow us to do, and step into another world and experience another culture or another person’s perspective.”