Like many other booksellers, Margaret (not her real name) was forced to shut down her store a year ago. When she reopened, she mostly sold books online, allowing customers to come by and pick them up. But when the number of new covid-19 cases in her area started to decline, she decided to let in one household at a time for in-store browsing—and within two weeks, she had contracted covid-19.
This past year has been an unprecedented challenge for physical bookstores, which have had to find ways to keep their relationship with their communities alive during social distancing and lockdowns. It’s a heartbreaking paradox: more people than ever have been reading, and publishers reported record profits in 2020, but bookstores have struggled to make ends meet. To survive, owners and staff have had to come up with new answers to the old question: What makes a great bookstore? But also: when things that seemed central to the bookselling experience, like browsing and hand-selling, become impossible, what’s left?