Even before the coronavirus pandemic upended all manner of businesses large and small, independent bookstores around the world have been in a form of survival mode. In recent years, they have been valiantly defending themselves against the continued onslaught of e-commerce, buoyed by the devotion of locals and tourists alike, and by anyone tired of the impersonal transactions of online book buying and mega-chains. But Covid-19 has made it hard for many of these stores, which depend heavily on in-person shoppers; booksellers’ encyclopedic knowledge of the latest tomes and their ability to recommend the perfect read just from a brief conversation about your personal preferences aren’t so easily translatable online.
Nonetheless, small bookshops around the world are doing their best with the situation, offering new ways of shopping and establishing community in ways that are helping keep them alive, and in some cases thriving. Below are a few independent bookstores that are creatively dealing with the pandemic—let them inspire you to seek out your local bookstore the next time you’re in need of something to read. And what better way is there to spend these impending days of winter lockdown than by curling up on the couch and getting lost in a great novel?
“Proust wrote, ‘Reading is that fruitful miracle of a communication in the midst of solitude.’ Isn’t that brilliant?” says Nicky Dunne, chairman of London’s Heywood Hill. “Books have always been a great antidote to isolation of all kinds and perhaps that applies more so to this wretched year than most.” Not to mention they make great gifts, too.
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Heywood Hill, London
Heywood Hill, a pedigreed Mayfair institution since 1936—high society It girl Nancy Mitford worked at the shop during World War II and her sister Deborah‘s husband, the 11th Duke of Devonshire, bought it in 1991 (his son Peregrine Cavendish, the 12th Duke, owns it now)—is known for creating exquisite private libraries for the most intellectually curious members of the one percent. But the store, which is said to be the Queen’s favorite bookshop (she awarded it the Royal Warrant in 2011), has much wider appeal, too. It boasts a customer base that hails from more than 50 countries and from every state in America. During the pandemic, their loyalty helped Heywood Hill’s subscription service go up 80% this year. It’s the staff’s extensive expertise, care, and insight that have made the service so popular, says Dunne: “It’s like having your own tailor, but cheaper.”
The Strand, New York
New Yorkers are nothing if not steadfastly loyal to their favorite institutions. When the Strand‘s owner Nancy Bass Wyden posted on Twitter and Facebook last month that the store was in trouble, with cash reserves running low and sales down 70%, the city mobilized. That weekend, the Strand received so many online orders (25,000) that the website crashed. Wyden had to enlist her 12-year-old daughter to pack books. As they say, if you need help, sometimes all you have to do is just ask.
Shakespeare & Company, Paris
The iconic Shakespeare & Company has been a mainstay of Paris’s Left Bank for more than a century. Sylvia Beach opened the first location in 1919 (it moved to a larger space on the Rue de l’Odeon in 1922) and the store became a refuge for the era’s celebrated expats, such as Ernest Hemingway, Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein, and F. Scott Fitzgerald. In 1951, George Whitman opened the second Shakespeare & Company just steps from the Seine, where it still stands today, and the store once again became a literary sanctuary of the era, welcoming the likes of Allen Ginsberg, James Baldwin, and Anaïs Nin. Last month, owner Sylvia Whitman (George’s daughter—he named her after Sylvia Beach) emailed her customers asking them to do their Christmas shopping early. The response was overwhelming. Her plea also caught the attention of former president François Hollande, who visited the store to film a video calling for the reopening of bookstores. The store has also launched a one-year membership program (starting at 45€) that consists of quarterly digital installments of curated content, including new writings, clips of author conversations, and never-before-seen archival items. It’s an online version of the membership program Sylvia Beach launched during the Great Depression to help the store survive—back then, an annual fee came with invitations to members-only readings with T. S. Eliot, André Gide, and Paul Valéry.
Politics & Prose, Washington D.C.
Politics & Prose in D.C. ranks high among places where the capital’s elite go to see and be seen—and do a reading when they have a book to promote. Everyone from Michelle Obama and Hillary Clinton to Boris Johnson and Omarosa have hosted events at the shop. President Barack Obama brought his two daughters, Malia and Sasha, on a shopping trip at the store in 2014. While the chance to see A-listers in the flesh is on hold during the pandemic, Politics & Prose has pivoted to online offerings. You can tune into live-streamed author conversations—James Beard Award-winning author John Birdsall, art critic Blake Gopnik, and Trump critic George Conway are just a few names on this month’s P&P Live! calendar. You can also enroll in virtual classes on a wide range of subjects, whether it’s a series on Dante’s Paradiso or a deep reading of Sylvia Plath.
Parnassus Books, Nashville
In 2011, when Nashville’s only remaining bookstore (a Borders) shut down, Ann Patchett, Nashville native and bestselling author of Commonwealth and The Dutch House, stepped in to save the city by co-founding Parnassus Books. Nearly a decade later, the shop has become as indispensable to Nashville as country music. And this holiday season, it will solve your gift-gifting dilemmas with these book bundles. Choose between a $50 or $100 bundle, select a genre, whether it’s historical fiction, poetry, or cocktails, and let the experts at Parnassus handle the rest. Or opt for a signed book from a local author, like Jon Meacham.
Powell’s Bookstore, Portland, Oregon
Do you particularly love that old book smell? You can now make it your signature fragrance. Powell’s, the self-described City of Books that takes over an entire block in Portland—it’s the largest new and used bookstore in the world, with 3,500 sections divided among nine color-coded rooms and an inventory of nearly 1 million books—released its first fragrance. Called Powell’s by Powell’s, it has notes of wood, violet, and biblichor (a.k.a. the smell of old books) and comes in a faux book. The scent was so popular when it launched earlier this month that there is a backorder until January.
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