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How independent bookstores are weathering tough economic times

Editor's note: We mistakenly referred to Alyson Jones Turner as Alyson Jones Taylor. We have corrected her name. We regret the error.


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Amna Nawaz: Ahead of small business Saturday, Jeffrey Brown takes a look now at the plight of independent bookstores, struggling to stay afloat in a challenging economy.

It's part of our ongoing arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Another day in the life of an independent bookstore in the time of pandemic, packing orders, customers at the curb and, on this day, a few allowed inside, and constant phone calls.

Janet Webster Jones: Sometimes, their first question is, are you open? And we say, well, kind of, sort of, maybe. What can we do for you?


Jeffrey Brown: In fact, Source Booksellers in Detroit's Midtown is open, just not in the way it used to be.

It's a tiny store, 900 square feet, owned and operated by 83-year-old Janet Webster Jones and her daughter Alyson Jones Taylor.

Janet had worked in the Detroit Public Schools as teacher and administrator for 40 years. Beginning in 1989, she built on her love of books, first selling them at local bazaars, fairs and churches, later as part of a women's business collective, finally opening the store here in 2013.

It's a highly curated selection, mostly nonfiction, history, health, books by and about women, art, things they love and want to share with customers.

You're your own algorithm, in a way.

Janet Webster Jones: You got that right.


Alyson Jones Taylor: We try. And we hope that our books, even if it's a storybook or a fiction book, it gives a history and a story that you may not get otherwise.

Jeffrey Brown: This was a place all about personal interaction, until March, when the store was closed and business disrupted. Out of necessity, mother and daughter changed it up.

Alyson Jones Taylor: We did not have a Web site where you could buy things before. And so this is absolutely new. And we had to learn all of the shipping and receiving, all these...

Janet Webster Jones: Packaging.

Alyson Jones Taylor: Packaging, different things that we were not doing before.

Jeffrey Brown: By going online, they found a wider audience, with sales as far as Maine, Washington state, and abroad. They also went old school, taking to the phones to reach individual customers.

As a Black-owned business, they saw the heightened interest in social justice issues translate into new relationships with businesses seeking large orders of books for their employees. And it continues to evolve.

Janet Webster Jones: Many times, people come in and talk about having a business. And they tell me I dreamed this, and I say, I did not dream this. Opportunity and courage put this business together over a period of time.

Jeffrey Brown: But opportunity and courage at any time is required.

Janet Webster Jones: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: What about with a pandemic?

Janet Webster Jones: Well, with the pandemic, the opportunity came for us to shut down and change. And we had the courage to just shift, and the possibility, because we had grown in our capacity to do things in the store.

Jeffrey Brown: These are perilous times for independent bookstores. According to a recent study by the American Booksellers Association, more than one indie has closed each week since the pandemic began, and 20 percent across the country are in danger of closing.

Renowned stores like Strand in New York and Vroman's in Los Angeles have said their survival is at stake. Everywhere, once popular author appearances and book club gatherings are virtual, and many stores continue to do curbside-only business.

Sarah Bagby: A lot depends on your community and how much they appreciate you.

Jeffrey Brown: At 43-year-old Watermark Books in Wichita, the cafe is closed, but the store itself is open to customers.

Owner Sarah Bagby had to lay off employees and shorten store hours, but a move to online sales has helped make up for other losses. Bagby, who bought the store in 1996, has been in this business long enough to survive past crises, and sees this one as again forcing stores like hers to focus on their core business.

Sarah Bagby: It's funny. When the box stores opened, typically, independent stores became better businesspeople, or they closed.

Now, with this pandemic, we are better businesspeople again. We have limited our time open. We have taken away the fat that wasn't generating revenue. And we are just selling books.

Jeffrey Brown: And they are part of a new effort to take on the elephant in any roomful of books, Amazon.

The fact is, book sales have risen during the pandemic. People are home reading more, teaching their children. But it's Amazon that's benefited most. A campaign called Boxed Out was launched by the ABA at several stores around the country, including Watermark.

Sarah Bagby: Our messaging is just, think about where you're shopping. If you love your local businesses, you really have to support them with your money. You can't just love them and think everybody else is taking care of them.

Jeffrey Brown: Source Booksellers in Detroit is also part of the campaign, and mother and daughter are hyper-conscious of the local role they play in a community that has continued to support them, whether through small development grants or through checks from loyal individuals.

Janet Webster Jones: Human beings need relationships on every level of their lives. And so that's why we were very dedicated to having a bookstore that would foster relationships.

I have people coming in the store, oftentimes, I think -- don't we, Alyson -- saying, I know I can get this from -- I won't say the word, but I wanted to buy it from you. And we're very grateful for that.

Jeffrey Brown: But is it sustainable? In this industry, some books can make a big difference.

Independent bookstores are counting on Barack Obama's memoir to kick off a holiday season that could make or break many. As COVID cases again explode, stores that are open face new closures, and every small business owner shivers as the cold weather sets in.

Janet Webster Jones: We don't know how sustainable anything is. We don't even know -- and I will say this as an old person -- we don't even know if our life is sustainable.


Janet Webster Jones: So, we have to live on the faith and the hope and the purpose of serving the community as best we can, of responding to the needs that come to us because of outside forces, being clear with our own DNA, what it means. We have decided this is our offering to the community, and going forward. That's the best we can do.

Jeffrey Brown: Read a good book lately? Bought a good book lately?

If you're lucky, you might find one just down the street.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown.

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