October 22, 2020

Two Chicago bookstores symbolize what’s at stake this holiday shopping season


Last week we wrote about the American Bookseller Association’s #BoxedOut campaign in which select indie storefronts were covered in the familiar drab of Amazon boxes carrying slogans like “Anyone else feel weird about making a $1.6 trillion company even richer?”

And we’re hoping that many many people do feel weird, as the campaign is nothing short of a plea for the continued existence of indie booksellers.

I’m sorry to say, that’s not hyperbole. We’re on pace to lose one bookstore a week throughout the entire length of lockdown. Pick just about any neighborhood and check in on its indies–the situation will be precarious at best.

That’s just what the University of Chicago’s paper, The Chicago Maroon, has done with the Jewel of the Midwest’s Hyde Park bookstores: Powell’s Books and the Seminary Co-Op.

As Amala Karri reports for the Maroon, Powell’s has noticed a disappointing dip in online sales as the summer ended. The hope is that those numbers will rebound when a distracting election season officially turns into the holiday season, but this downward trend is exactly what the #BoxedOut campaign is rallying against.

Of the struggles a used bookstore faces when it does not know when it will re-open, Karri writes:

Until they can let customers browse their shelves again, bookstores like Powell’s will have to try to survive almost entirely online. And while [Bradley Jonas, owner] explained that there are certainly ways to use the internet to learn about new books—through bibliographies, book reviews, and other resources—the experience is not quite the same. “The serendipity of being in a store,” he said. “Some of it’s lost.”

The eminently browsable (and not-for-profit, the first of its kind in the United States) Seminary Co-Op has a similar problem: part of what they usually sell is the bookstore experience.  At the moment they’re staying afloat, but operating as something closer to a fulfillment center for online orders. And it’s not clear how long that will be sustainable. Karri writes:

[Jeff Deutsch, Director] acknowledges the uncertainty still facing the Seminary Co-Op. “It’s not a foregone conclusion that we’ll make it,” said Deutsch. “Will we still be viable when it’s safe and financially prudent to open? It’s a question that many bookstores are asking themselves right now.”

Both stores have curbside pickup available. Both are in a pinch. And both could be in your neighborhood. #ShopIndie now!



Ryan Harrington is a senior editor at Melville House.