In 2015, it was Greece’s financial crisis keeping customers away from the Free Thinking Zone Bookstore & Cafe. At the time, the shop’s shelves were full, but its common areas were empty; pages were not being turned, coffees were not being served, and the overall situation looked bleak.
I first interviewed the shop’s owner, Areti Georgilis, in July of that year. At that time, Areti was extremely worried her small Athens business might not make it. Despite all the obstacles, though, her concept store, one she calls an “activism bookshop”, survived.
Now, nearly five years on, it is a far worse crisis – the coronavirus pandemic – threatening to turn the shop’s lights off for good. “It’s been very hard,” Georgilis told me this week as we reconnected over Skype.
“The biggest problem right now is the lockdown of the stores,” said Georgilis. “And the lockdown will lead us eventually to problems with liquidity. Small and medium businesses in Greece, I guess all over the world, they are facing such problems.”
Like many other booksellers, Georgilis has developed a delivery service in order to continue to serve her customers. Still, she is finding it “hard to compete with the largest chains”.
Marianne Reiner owns and operates the Run For Cover Bookstore in San Diego, California. The shop’s future is uncertain, but loyal customers continue to order titles from her.
“People need books more than ever. Books are escapes. Books are a wonderful medium right now,” Reiner said on Skype. “But it actually has been really hard for the whole business, book business world to get our hands on books, because everyone has had to change overnight the way they do business.”
Reiner explained how demand on distributors and publishers has been overwhelming, further complicating the situation.
“They also had to deal with, you know, employees being sick or not being able to get to work because of, you know, safety for them and their family. And so the process has been slow at first. I think right now I’m seeing, you know, better delivery time and all because everybody’s been adjusting.”
She fulfilled a lifelong dream by opening her store a year and a half ago. Like many other independent bookstore owners, she has increasingly turned to social media to keep book buyers engaged; alerting them to works that have come in and orders that have gone out. She has even started initiatives like Digital Mother-Daughter Storytime sessions. Still, she says nothing will ever replace face-to-face interactions with fellow book lovers.
“Having the connections with the readers has really been the greatest gift of my bookstore,” explained Marianne. “And not being able to do this in person right now is obviously very, very hard.”
But it is not just booksellers and bookstores getting more creative while trying to engage readers in the era of COVID-19. Writers are too.
Author and journalist Sanam Maher saw the publicity tour for her book, A Woman Like Her: The Story Behind the Honor Killing of a Social Media Star, cut short by the pandemic. Soon after, she began thinking about what kind of effect the coronavirus would have on writers and their work.
“I wonder what it’s like for people who just have their first book coming out, or they’re a smaller name, or they haven’t had as much marketing or hype behind their work,” explained Maher. “And how they really, really rely on festivals and events and events in bookshops, and being able to do that sort of networking. And suddenly losing out on that entirely. What does that mean?”
So, while working from home in Karachi, Pakistan, she started the Stay Home, Stay Reading series with friend and fellow author Fatima Bhutto. The videos, posted on social media platforms like Instagram, showcase writers, poets, and the art of storytelling.
“I wanted to create something that allowed those authors to put their work forward in as public a space as possible. To allow, just readers from all over the world to access their work, to just check it out, see if they’re interested, to be able to read from their work, and also really to have a moment when they could share it and celebrate it.”
In the videos, writers read selections of their works and works they admire; offering stories as a way to escape – even if just for a few moments – the seemingly constant barrage of bad news.