So, Do You Really Want to
Brad Johnson on the High Cost of Business as Usual
Like most of my bookselling peers, I’ve been on the edge of many emotions the past ten or so days. Fright at the severity of the crisis we’re facing. Concern for my own family. Elation at the support and camaraderie extended my store by its community. Kinship and care for many of the same people from whom I was now socially distanced.
Life is precarious on the edge—of cliffs, of history—and often the most normal thing in the face of the extraordinary is denial. The cost of getting these things wrong is high. The cost of doing them right is sometimes no cheaper.
The two best moments of the past week:
Opening a bottle of semi-expensive bourbon with my co-worker after we looked at the figures and could announce, “We bought ourselves a week.”
Texting with my two closest friends in bookselling, Stephen Sparks (of Point Reyes Books) and Tom Roberge (of riffraff), and concluding: “the sooner I stop deluding myself about the financial sustainability of anything resembling ‘normal’ commerce, the better.”
It’s maybe not a coincidence, but a feature of our present situation, that these “best moments” were also the most sobering.
It was amazing to see so many people step to the plate and want to help us. When we closed our doors to the public in advance of the Bay Area’s “shelter-in-place” order, web orders flooded in. It was a sight to see. Admittedly, some of this might have been due to our announcement that we were going to offer free shipping. The hope was that we’d mitigate the cost of doing so with curbside pick-up and drop-off deliveries at people’s houses. We were grasping at anything we could to keep up the appearance of normalcy in very non-normal times.
Oh, the cliffs of California look nice. They make for pretty pictures and Instagram posts. But it gets windy on those cliffs. Mind your step . . . the fall’s a doozy.
When I talk about the high costs of business as normal, I’m not being metaphorical. Let’s break it down:
A customer orders a $16 paperback. Let’s say it Oakland’s own Tommy Orange’s There There. Great book.
The closed-to-the-public bookstore has put most of its publisher accounts on hold, and they had a run on the book on their final day of regular business. To the wholesaler! But here’s the thing, a store’s wholesale discount is pretty significantly lower than if they ordered it from the publisher. I’ll spare you the math, but by eating the shipping on that book we were going to make around $2.50 on the sale.
To put that in perspective: that’s less than a third of our normal profit.
To put that in perspective: for this to be sustainable, we would need our business to increase exponentially during a pandemic that threatens the lives and livelihoods of millions.
Conclusion: we went back on a popular decision that got a lot of congratulation and good will, and ditched the free shipping.
I am, by psychological nature, more afraid of enclosed spaces than heights. Being suffocated has always terrified more than a fall from great height.
Funnily enough—if you’re wont to laugh at such things—the effect of both is the same. The cost remains the same.
What’s my point here?
It’s that for our bookstores to survive—for you to help save them—we can’t sustainably think in terms of “buying ourselves another week.” This is especially true if it comes in the form of a few booksellers at each store hustling themselves for quarters on a dollar. If the financial toll does not finally take its effect, the effects of falling from the cliff edge’s—on these booksellers’ bodies and minds (in the form of exhaustion or illness)—eventually will.
In the same way we’ve had to reevaluate and alter how we socialize during this pandemic, I think we also have to seriously rethink how we go about our commerce. Well-intentioned, large orders are great, but ask your favorite bookstores which would be better for them right now: that order, or a gift certificate of the same amount? I know how I’m answering. A gift card purchase at present is effectively like you’re buying double your order, because I’m not yet spending anything to fulfill it (in the form of getting the books to you or replacing the one(s) you’ve purchased). Can issues arise with having too many gift cards floating around when normalcy becomes normal again? Possibly, but I didn’t buy a bookstore to avoid all risk.
(A possible, significant exception: try to order things a closed store has in stock right now. It’s very possible that even in a closed store, somebody is receiving freight or payroll, and if so they will probably be more than happy to drop it in the mail to you.)
The view from the cliff reveals too many things to see in one blink. You can, on a good day, in just a few moments, see more than a lifetime.
My hope is that the crisis is such that we, as a book community, as a culture, as a people, will also radically revisit what our common struggle means. Our actions affect the actions of others, theirs affect ours, and so on. We’re on that level cooperating whether we know it (or want to) or not, so why not actually try a different way than we have? The high cost of normal business is too high. For independent booksellers (and publishers), it may also mean we reevaluate what being “independent” means—in the face of our need to collectively and creatively support one another.
I don’t know how all that’s going to look. I just know how it looks from this cliff we’re on now. And the fall here is long. To tread wisely and responsibly on this particularly point, is to do so together.