In Chicago, Ill., Women & Children First had a slower holiday season than normal, and the store was "down a good bit" in comparison to 2019, reported director of operations Jamie Thomas. Thomas added that the stock was leaner and more curated than ever before, and the bookstore team put a lot of time and energy into making the website feel as close as possible to the in-store shopping experience, which included browsing pre-made bundles and gift guides.
In mid-November, co-owner Sarah Hollenbeck said, the store made the difficult decision to close for in-store browsing, and the team has not been able to reopen safely since. After re-closing, the store has processed sales through the website or over the phone, along with offering curbside pick-up seven days per week. Most of the store's business, though, is shipping.
As the holiday season revved up, Hollenbeck continued, she and the team realized that online sales in late December were "going to be a different beast entirely," as the store's customer base would likely expand and they wouldn't be serving only their regular, easy-going and flexible customers. Because of that, the bookstore team decided to switch to phone sales only during the week leading up to Christmas, and they also held an outdoor pop-up shop. Hollenbeck noted the store was selling so many copies of the same few titles online that the inventory "would change wildly from one hour to the next." By taking only phone orders, they tried to eliminate any confusion and disappointment stemming from inventory discrepancies.
Store co-owner Lynn Mooney said there were some familiar holiday shopping patterns, despite all of the changes. Customers still ordered plenty of boxed sets, as well as hardcover versions of books already out in paperback. Many long-time customers asked after the team, and it was great to hear from so many of them. Thomas said sales peaked earlier than usual, and the final few days before Christmas were "the quietest of the entire six-week holiday season." The store sold thousands of dollars in gift cards each day, and it became difficult for staff members manually to create all of those gift cards.
Looking ahead to the first few months of 2021, Mooney said the team is always grateful this time of year "for the breathing space." They hope to find time finally to get to some projects that were put on hold, including rearranging the front office and doing some painting. They'll also keep a close eye on financials, with Mooney pointing out that even in a strong year, the late winter can be a "white-knuckle time."
On the bright side, Thomas said, the store is having a stronger January than usual despite being closed for browsing. Thomas attributed that to customers getting used to the updated website and feeling more comfortable with online ordering and pick-up. The store's goal is to keep the community safe, and at the moment public health is being prioritized over the bottom line.
Angela Schwesnedl, owner of Moon Palace Books in Minneapolis, Minn., said her store's sales this holiday season were almost identical to the store's numbers from 2019, which was surprising considering that the store has never reopened for browsing. All of the store's sales are online now, whether the orders are for pick-up or shipping. Compared to past holiday seasons, the store sold far fewer sidelines in 2020, and though overall sales were similar, "it felt like a lot more work."
Some of the store's biggest sellers included Braiding Sweetgrass by Robin Wall Kimmerer, which was the store's second biggest title of the year, as well as Owls of the Eastern Ice by Jonathan C. Slaght and The Stars and the Blackness Between Them by Junauda Petrus. Some of the other major titles, Schwednedl added, were a bit more "predictable," like A Promised Land by Barack Obama and The Vanishing Half by Brit Bennett.
Schwesnedl said she plans to take a careful look at things after the inauguration this week and will "make a plan [for reopening] for the next nine weeks." She noted that early last year, she tried to think realistically about the pandemic and came to the conclusion that she would stay closed at least through the inauguration.
The health of her staff and customers is a priority, and she pointed out that if she had tried to reopen for the holidays and someone got sick, it would have caused a "huge disruption in our system." She and her team "all miss what life used to be like," but they're not going to rush anything. --Alex Mutter