When imagining an independent bookstore, what comes to mind? Is it a sense of community and familiarity? Is it a safe-space that provides a sense of calm? There is a sense of comfort independent bookstores provide to the neighborhoods they serve.
Unlike their larger counterparts, independent bookstores cater to the communities they’re in. The COVID-19 pandemic has stripped communities of these invaluable
offerings, but has also shown the significant need for independent bookstores within neighborhoods, alongside the resilience of these independent-run businesses.
The first case of COVID-19 in Connecticut was confirmed on March 8th, 2020. By March 23 of last year, Gov. Ned Lamont signed an executive order which required all non-essential businesses to close. For independent bookstores in Connecticut, this meant doing everything to stay afloat.
Independent bookstores were faced with questions of how to serve their community alongside COVID-19 health concerns such as protecting the health of themselves and employees during reopening. With fewer than ten independently-run bookstores in New Haven, each of these businesses play key roles in their contribution to the community. They provide connection and contact with others in the area.
Book Trader Cafe, an independent bookstore open in New Haven, Connecticut since 1998, has the tagline “Feed your body and your mind.” on the website. Dave Duda, founder of Book Trader Cafe, found it difficult to operate a small kitchen like his safely during the initial reopening. Finding hand sanitizer, masks, and COVID-19 tests proved nearly impossible. As it is located in the heart of Yale University’s campus, many students see the space as a study haven, lamenting the closing of the bookshop last year.
People Get Ready Bookstore in New Haven has the mission statement of being “a place for books, building, and beloved community.” Delores Williams and Lauren Anderson, co-founders of People Get Ready Bookstore, have created a space that has been pivotal to children in the New Haven Area as well. Founders created a reading hour during the closing of public schools at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic. Reading every morning at 9 a.m. over Facebook Live, Williams and Anderson sought to fill the gaps for teachers and parents who were now confronting numerous obstacles to their children’s education.
“The pandemic required that we figure out other ways of reaching our community and meeting their needs, which meant developing more offerings online, delivering locally by bike, and bringing reading events to people virtually,” Anderson said Tuesday morning. “All things we planned to do eventually but ended up doing a bit sooner because the situation called for it.”
When asked on the effect of COVID-19 on upholding the community space of People Get Ready, Williams said, “Honestly COVID has made us love community even harder and deeper and we will continue to weather the storm for our folks because we are their neighbors. We are here and in the struggle with them, loving it.”
When asked about working at an independent bookstore during a pandemic, Isaac Yearwood, a rising senior at Yale University and an employee at People Get Ready, said, “it’s been really sweet to experience reciprocity in the form of smiles and laughs. We haven’t seen that much of that in high concentration these past 18 or so months. To be immersed in brightness each time I head to work is a blessing I never thought possible.”
In addition to the pandemic taking away these communities from local neighborhoods, online booksellers like Amazon are making the survival of independent bookstores increasingly difficult. While independent bookstores are everything larger booksellers aren’t— community- based and cultivated—a fraught economy during the COVID-19 pandemic resulted in a shift in consumer habits to online shopping.
If Amazon and other online bookstores continue to crush smaller, independent businesses, the result will not only be Amazon having the largest share in book selling, but people reading fewer books. Community-based bookstores offer accessibility to those who would otherwise not have it, particularly Black and Brown, queer, disabled, low-income populations.
It is pivotal that bookshop patrons continue to purchase from their local bookstores. Websites like bookshop.org also provide the comfort of online shopping while sending proceeds to independent bookstores. Without consumers’ commitment to supporting these local businesses, larger businesses will strip communities of the intimacy and warmth which accompany these independent bookstores.
People deserve these safe spaces.
Leila Jackson is a student at Yale University.