Independent bookstores in the Bay Area have found a new way to get books to their customers: they’re selling them online and delivering them right to their front doors.

“We’ve been driving our Prius all over the place doing deliveries and getting to know a little bit more about where our customers live, which is kind of neat,” said Craig Wiesner, who owns Reach and Teach in San Mateo with his husband Derrick Kikuchi.

Wiesner said they have been doing 30 to 40 deliveries a week, and the customer service they provide is really paying off.

Once, they got a call from someone around 2 p.m. requesting that they deliver a book to a local birthday party by 5 p.m.

“I said, ‘Yeah, sure. If it’s on our shelf, I’ll do that.’ I got a photograph of the kid with this huge smile on his face from the birthday party. It’s wonderful,” Wiesner said.

The store stocks toys, games and books centered around gender equality, sustainability and peacemaking. Pre-pandemic, books accounted for about 10 percent of sales. But once pandemic shutdowns struck in March, and they set up an online bookstore, the business “flipped,” Wiesner said.

Books began making up about 70% of their sales.

With limited in-store capacity, Wiesner said they have had to turn people away from the store for the first time, but the gift deliveries are giving them a new way to reach customers.

“It’s building the community because we’re providing a little postcard with our store information on it with the gifts,” Wiesner said. “They didn’t know we existed [but] now they know there’s a store nearby where this gift came from.”

In place of in-store shopping, customers can order through Reach and Teach’s online bookstore, which Wiesner and Kikuchi built with help from the American Bookseller’s Association.

And they are not alone.

Benefiting from ‘Amazon fatigue’

The Association, which supports independent bookstores, reported that e-commerce for independent bookstores had increased substantially during the pandemic. During a seven-day period in mid-December, overall sales revenue was up over 600% compared to the same period in 2019.

“We’re seeing a lot of Amazon fatigue,” Wiesner said. “A number of people have told us, ‘You know I’m just tired of buying everything from Amazon. I want to support a local business.’”

Even with local support, Reach and Teach still dependeds on federal funding such as loans from the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) run by the U.S. Small Business Administration.

Similarly, Lauren Savage, owner of The Reading Bug in San Carlos, depended on a PPP loan and a GoFundMe fundraiser to stay afloat.

“Our stores are designed to look like a big pop-up book with trees, authors that signed all of our walls and it’s kind of a special place. But it just became this big warehouse.”

Lauren Savage, The Reading Bug

Around Easter time, when Savage was the sole worker in the bookstore, donations and orders poured in.

“It was hard to keep up, which was a good problem to have,” she said. “The in-store sales suffered tremendously but our online sales skyrocketed.”

The Reading Bug is usually a vibrant scene, with children running around the store, or singing and enjoying story time. Their staff also provided personal service, helping customers find books and recommending others.

Now, through their online bookstore and personalized care packages via readingbugbox.com — a service that existed pre-pandemic — they have creating a family-oriented atmosphere online. Savage said they put a lot of work into making the website look “just like a boutique.”

As for the store itself, Savage now describes it as an “expensive warehouse” — they are paying high rent for a beautiful space that people can barely enjoy. With limited customers who can only access half the store, the atmosphere is more somber.

“Our stores are designed to look like a big pop-up book with trees, authors that signed all of our walls and it’s kind of a special place. But it just became this big warehouse,” Savage said.

The Reading Bug in San Carlos has worked to create a family-oriented atmosphere, surviving through online sales as well as donations and government loans. Owner Lauren Savage says the storefront has become an “expensive warehouse.” (Photo courtesy of The Reading Bug/Facebook)

More effort, smaller margins

Sales might be up but added operational costs, like installing plexiglass barriers, means that margins are slimmer.

“It’s the same amount of sales for 10 times the work per employee,” Savage said.

She is looking forward to opening fully once it is safe. Meanwhile, in the new year readers can look forward to an upcoming season of the “Reading Bug Adventures” podcast, a story podcast geared towards children.

For antiquarian bookstore owner Chris Lowenstein, the pandemic has posed a different type of challenge.

Lowenstein has never had an in-person site for her store Book Hunter’s Holiday, which specializes in antiquarian (or “rare”) books, with a focus on California history, illustrated editions of Dante’s “Divine Comedy” and books with decorative bindings. While she has a website, cultivating an online presence was never Lowenstein’s focus.

Most of her sales are through book fairs. Usually, Lowenstein would attend fairs such as ones hosted by the Antiquarian Booksellers’ Association of America (ABAA). She would take up to 24 boxes of books to the fairs, which are an opportunity for booksellers to make sales and scout for new books.

That’s where the challenge lies.

“Where do you get your new inventory from if you can’t go anywhere, shop anywhere?” Lowenstein said. “You can shop around online. But with older books, it’s much easier to make a decision about how much money to spend on a book that you’re then going to offer yourself for resale if you can actually see and handle the book in person.”

The ABAA’s California book fair went virtual in March, and there have been other online fairs, but Lowenstein has instead been focused on her job as a high school teacher, which took up most of her time.

“I’ve never worked harder as a teacher in my entire career than I have in the last nine months,” Lowenstein said. “The nice thing about having an antiquarian book business: it’s not generally known as a fast-paced business, so you can put it aside from time to time. The books are still there when you’re ready. So that’s what’s happening right now — not really by choice, just by circumstance.”