New York City’s independent bookstores are adapting to changing conditions as storefronts around the city remain shuttered. Some local bookstores are staying afloat by moving sales online and offering curbside pickup or delivery.
Word Up Community Bookshop, a multilingual, independent bookstore and community space in Washington Heights, is one of the stores that moved sales online.
The Coronavirus Chronicles spoke with Veronica Liu, founder and general coordinator of Word Up, about what it’s like to run an independent bookstore and maintain a sense of literary community during a pandemic.
Note: This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Can you talk about the space and volunteers who operate Word Up?
When the gates are down, there’s a mural from a local graffiti artist. And when you walk inside, it’s a similar vibe.
The duct work on the ceiling is painted by a local artist who lives next door, there’s probably a little bit of messy boxes in the front of books people have donated. There’s a little event space where people can move around tables and chairs. During the day people are there catching up, doing their homework. There’s lots of people coming through every day.
At any given time there are 60 active volunteers who take turns doing shifts. About a quarter of our volunteers are youth who are doing internships or community service hours, or just really like the space and being with a mix of ages. The vast majority are people from the neighborhood. We also now have a very small staff that we didn’t always have, because we were completely volunteer-run for the first six years of our existence.
How has Word Up adjusted to the new reality of the pandemic?
We closed on March 13, a lot earlier than a lot of other bookstores because we were reading news from around the world. We didn’t want to do curbside pickup because we didn’t really want to model and encourage being outside. We had a few conferences that we were the booksellers for that were canceled, and that was a huge hit for us in terms of income.
Then we switched totally to online selling, and we had a website already, and I’m really glad that we’ve already gone through that learning curve of having to process orders online. The volume of online orders has already increased a lot.
But then, because community events have always been a huge part of what we do, we had to figure out if we could switch to doing a bunch of events online. Hosting an online event all the time can be kind of a lot. So we haven’t done as many events online as we had going before. These bigger events that we have planned are happening online, like this upcoming event with the writers Julia Alvarez and Edwidge Danticat that will be happening this coming Tuesday.
How does it feel to be making these adjustments?
I do think I have a high tolerance for chaos. I’m feeling OK, and I think some of that is because we started in a weird way, as a pop-up shop that kept getting extension after extension til we were around for 15 months.
The new landlord closed down the original location and we had to put everything into storage and this volunteer collective suddenly went into an abstract space. We were meeting every week for a year without a space, crammed into an apartment. We opened together at our current location, but we’d already been through having to deal without a space, and having to do all different kinds of revenue streams.
We are a nonprofit, and so we have income streams that aren’t just book-selling because we can apply for grants. We are always kind of applying for grants anyways, so we are kind of used to it. It doesn’t mean it hasn’t been challenging for us. But it hasn’t been as dramatic a shift as perhaps it has for other businesses.
Do you see any difference in the ways people are interacting with local bookstores right now and the ways you are engaging with the community?
I see this really big outpouring of love that people have for their independent bookstores. People are buying books because they know they’ll have a lot of time to read in the next month but they also want to support the places they want to be able to go to.
Our mission is book access but there’s also a lot of information about COVID that is not in books that we can share responsibly. We look at how we can be a resource beyond just the nature of selling books.
One of our big focuses was census outreach, and that’s been hampered by coronavirus. We were crushed to not be able to do all of our census engagement efforts. This year there is a push to do the census online, but some of our neighborhood doesn’t have good internet access. So this move to online can only meet the needs of a certain part of our target audience.
How can folks best support local, community-based bookshops during this time?
We can take donations as a nonprofit that are tax deductible. But if a place has a membership program or a gift certificate, joining those programs is probably the best thing you can do with the most minimal contact and that you can use later. And the next best thing is to buy books. We set up a fundraiser for our local mail carriers because we were pushing folks to buy books online. We wanted to help the people actually delivering these packages.
But even if you can just go to [virtual] events and share love on social media, that’s really important for people to see and hear right now. It’s been helpful just having people show up for things, even if it’s online, because it’s good having that presence.