It’s no surprise to anyone that the local bookstore scene in Denver has been completely upended by the coronavirus.
Independent bookstores have always battled against big sellers like Amazon, but in the pandemic, some have fallen farther behind. In-person browsing and events set local retailers apart in the past, but that hasn’t been an option for several months. Now, only a handful of shops have reopened completely.
As independent bookstores are forced online as a last hope, many are still selling less than half of what they’ve sold in past summers.
But underdogs like Mutiny Information Cafe and Shop at MATTER are faring relatively well, with readers flocking to smaller sellers like them to stock up on anti-racist texts or other things to do from home. All the owners we spoke to emphasized that Denver readers are keeping them afloat right now as avid supporters of shopping local.
Not all independent bookstores in Denver have experienced the pandemic in the same way. Bookies, for example, has always catered to teachers and students, and it’s seen a new flood of homeschooling parents looking for resources, according to Luke Henderson, director of marketing. The Printed Page Bookshop has no online shop and relies on a network of loyal collectors for vintage books and special editions, said co-owner Dan Danbom.
Holly Brooks, owner of Capitol Hill Books, said it’s not about competition right now — everyone’s trying to stay above water. She said she’ll send a customer to Kilgore or West Side if she doesn’t have a title in stock.
The largest independent seller in the state, the Tattered Cover Book Store, is still grappling with its next steps as it weathers the challenges of reduced sales and canceled events due to the coronavirus. In addition, the store came under fire in June after its owners, Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan, released a statement about Black Lives Matter, designating the store as a neutral space. They received swift backlash from customers, authors and other bookstores and released an apology two days later, acknowledging that they would not remain neutral in situations of injustice.
Vlahos released a detailed equity action plan on Monday, outlining how they would go through management coaching, change their hiring practices and focus on curation to support marginalized communities and authors. But the store declined to comment on its sales or survival tactics for this article unless an interview would omit discussion of their Black Lives Matter statement. The Denver Post declined.
The Denver Post talked to eight local retailers in Denver, each of which is open for curbside pickup or browsing in some capacity, requiring masks at all times. Across the board, owners had one message: Bookstores create community, and in order to get through the pandemic, they are hoping their customers keep shopping local.
Shop at MATTER
Shop at MATTER is a quirky design studio that includes a specialty book collection. Located at 2135 Market Street in the Ballpark neighborhood, most of its sales come from custom prints you’ve probably seen all over town. Owners Debra Johnson and Rick Griffith said their focus has always been design since they started in 1999 and opened the Market Street location four years ago. But during the pandemic, they’ve seen book sales skyrocket.
MATTER is certainly the exception to the rule. Before the pandemic, Johnson said they were happy to sell 12 items from the store in a week. But after the death of George Floyd, MATTER was featured on 303 Magazine’s list of Denver’s Black-owned businesses, and suddenly Griffith and Johnson were filling 20 book orders an hour for delivery or curbside pickup.
As a store that’s been involved in activism since the beginning, Griffith said they’ve been at an advantage in the current moment. And Johnson, who curates the selection at the store, has gone to great lengths to find titles specific to racial justice, gender studies, poetry and design. She said she’s gone as far as India to find a stack of Patricia Hill Collins’ 1990 book “Black Feminist Thought.”
Johnson said sales have tapered off since June, but they’re still receiving about 16 requests a day. Griffith also emphasized that while they appreciate the business, it doesn’t feel good to have it coming from a movement responding to centuries of pain inflicted on Black and brown communities.
“Between the corona experience and all of the energy spent talking about Black Lives Matter, and all of the energy that it takes to publicly process and grieve the murder of Black people in plain sight … saying that you feel good isn’t a thing yet,” he said. “How I feel is fortunate, how I feel is both agitated and frustrated and enthusiastic, all at the same time.”
Mutiny Information Cafe
Mutiny Information Cafe said it is also doing surprisingly well in the pandemic. Owners Matt Megyesi and Jim Norris reopened their location at 2 South Broadway St. for browsing, 15 customers at a time. They’ve seen a dip in sales like other stores without events from punk rock concerts to comedy showcases, but are selling plenty of books, records and comics, as customers look for something to do at home.
Mutiny has also taken a unique role, as Denver’s “leftist bookstore,” Megysei said, because of its location close to Black Lives Matter protests. Not only has it sold plenty of social justice titles, it also provided water, medical supplies and eye-washing stations for tear gas when protests were at the peak. Now the back of the store is closed off to store clothing donations for housing-insecure residents and other community causes.
Norris said a bookstore is a natural fit for the center of movements like Black Lives Matter as a community center filled with knowledge.
“We’re looking inside for answers, we’re looking outside for answers, and the spot that has had the answers all along is a bookstore,” Norris said. “Everything you need to find to solve these problems in the world are in a bookstore.”
Capitol Hill Books
Capitol Hill Books’ location at 300 East Colfax Ave. usually brings in plenty of foot traffic from tourists, making up 40% of business in the summer. But for owner Holly Brooks, being right near the Black Lives Matter protests at the state capitol is making things difficult. Brooks said her windows are still boarded up after the protests, during which someone threw an object into the upper level of the store.
She added that Capitol Hill Books is a part of a larger ecosystem in the area. She gets customers from her neighboring restaurants and other retail stores, which are also limping through the pandemic. But the business community has been a huge support for Capitol Hill Books — Brooks said the cannabis shop Good Chemistry even offered to pay her rent for the summer.
Brooks has opened the store for in-person browsing with customers trickling in, though people often don’t notice she’s open because of the boarded-up windows. She’s also continued to sell online, including through Amazon, and she’s started curating “mystery boxes” where she selects new titles for customers based on their favorites.
“I hear every day, ‘I’m so glad you’re open,’ ” Brooks said. “I can’t possibly give up with that kind of support.”
BookBar has also relied on its unique model, space and community during the pandemic. Right now, owner Nicole Sullivan said the front window and patio at 4280 Tennyson St. are open for customers to get coffee or wine to-go. There is still curbside pickup, and customers can also ask about titles at the window.
Sullivan said sales reached pre-pandemic sales with people looking for anti-racist readings in June, but now they’re back to about 50%. But still, without events that bring in customers for drinks and books, she said she’s struggling to re-create the community feel of the store.
“We were all about having people gather in our space,” Sullivan said. “How do we as a community space translate to this new model of just being able to reorder through the window?”
Book Bar is offering events on Zoom, and Sullivan said she’s also prioritized serving the community to go beyond retail. Now, 10% of sales go to their nonprofit, BookGive, which has donated 12,000 books to other organizations around the city since the shutdown in March, including Denver Public Library and Denver Public Schools.
The Bookies Bookstore
The Bookies Bookstore has not yet reopened its location at 4315 E. Mississippi Ave. for browsing, but it’s offering curbside pickup and online orders. In an email, Luke Henderson, director of marketing for the store, said staff members are vulnerable to the virus and can’t risk opening, even though they’re eager to see customers.
Henderson emphasized that Bookies’ is adapting to the needs of its customers, particularly teachers and students. Usually, this is this busiest time of year with back-to-school shopping, but with so many unknowns, it’s lost about a quarter of sales, he said.
Since opening 45 years ago, the bookstore has provided educational materials, and most of its staff are former teachers, librarians or school administrators. In a moment when schools look completely different, parents and teachers are leaning on Bookies, as they navigate virtual classrooms and homeschooling.
West Side Books
West Side Books’ owner Lois Harvey said running a used bookstore has been almost impossible during the pandemic. She’s opened her location at 3434 W. 32nd Ave., but she can only bring in six customers at a time, by appointment. During the shutdown, she finally caved and tried to create a browsing experience online, offering free shipping and home deliveries, as well as book bundles selected by staff.
She said she’s noticed lots of people reading more speculative fiction, nonfiction and memoirs.
“I’m encouraged that people are reading,” Harvey said. “What I’m taking away from all of this is that there’s a future for books.”
Printed Page Bookshop
Printed Page Bookshop is one of the few bookstores that’s resisted going online. As a business that sells used and vintage books, co-owner Dan Danbom said his strength is a personalized approach that can’t be recreated on a website.
Printed Page has been at 1416 S. Broadway for 12 years, and though he’s reopened the space for walk-ins, Danbom said the past five months have been especially painful.
“This was starting before the coronavirus, that physical bookstores are an endangered species,” he said. “I think that’s certainly too bad because a lot of them really have a community commitment. We certainly do.”
Kilgore Books has opened its small store at 624 E. 13th Ave. for browsing with only five people at a time. But owner John Kuebler said he’s still only at 25% of previous years’ sales, the same rate from online sales during the shutdown. He’s a one-man business right now, relying on longtime patrons who buy a stack of books whenever they can.
Kuebler’s staying afloat, and is also offering home deliveries and online orders, but as sales decrease and the cost of running the business increases, he’s unsure of how long he can operate on thin margins, especially competing with sellers like Amazon.
“We’re already playing from behind, and to lose out on any sales is really detrimental,” he said. “We’re all doing it for the love of it anyway, so that’s what will push us through.”
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