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Booksellers are working to stay connected with customers

click to enlarge Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore, says her first advice is to read “whatever gives you what you need right now.”

Scott Elmquist

Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore, says her first advice is to read “whatever gives you what you need right now.”

Local bookstores are like churches for readers. They offer salvation, quiet and mystery, with so many possible worlds to explore. That spiritual connection to the book as an object has been lost during the pandemic, with readers choosing to order books online and pick up curbside.

But what about the booksellers? Part of the allure of going into your local bookshop is knowing you’ll be welcomed by a familiar face, someone who can recommend a book just by hearing a short description of what types of stories you like to read.

Style Weekly spoke with Kelly Justice, owner of Fountain Bookstore in Shockoe Slip, and Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books in Carytown, about what’s been lost and gained during this unprecedented time.

Style Weekly: How has the pandemic affected the experience at your store?

Kelly Justice: Re-creating the experience of browsing and discovery at Fountain has been challenging to say the least. Bookstores’ being closed for so long has ultimately proved the legitimacy of the bricks-and-mortar bookstore model. It’s a pleasure that is not easy to duplicate online. The same thing goes for interacting with our booksellers and our programming. To some extent we can replicate that through our online events and social media, but a lot of the spontaneity has gone out of it. Bookstores and libraries are inspirational places. The best ones make discovery a delight. Every corner turned should contain a surprise, a gem you didn’t know you couldn’t live without. Whether that is a book, a silly gift, or a human interaction you didn’t know you needed.  

Ward Tefft: Our doors have been locked since March 16, so it has been really tough for people to browse our store. We do post daily on Instagram with both stories and timeline posts, so that helps people virtually shop our store. But nothing really compares with being in our store and finding books you did not know you were looking for.

How have you adapted the way in which you showcase new books and authors?

Justice: The good news is that we are able to bring talented authors and publishing professionals for programming to Richmond without burdening the publishers or authors with travel expenses or travel times. We are also able to bring our programming to more people including ones who don’t live in the area or who are unable to attend events or visit the store for reasons as wide-ranging as mobility issues, lack of child care, anxiety around crowds, immune disorders, whatever prevented them from being a part of the store in the past. 

Some of our best customers for years have been online and now they can have a much richer relationship with us. Our staff has been wonderful at reading and keeping their staff picks pages up to date on our website, picking out underrecognized worthy authors’ books and putting a spotlight on local talent.

Tefft: There are a lot of amazing books being released this year by Richmond authors and we had some big events planned for their release parties. Unfortunately, we had to adjust our plans to keep everyone safe. This has meant socially distant book signings, holding author interviews on Instagram Live and adding certain bonuses to buying the books from us. We have used email, our website and social media to promote these books and offer a discount on preorders.

Do you see a return to normal or are you expecting permanent changes?

Justice: I feel so fortunate that I was able to bring back most of my staff with the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program] loans, but now that’s run out and we have to find a way to increase business immediately to survive. I also feel fortunate for so many reasons as others have lost their businesses, their health, their loved ones and their lives. We are really very, very lucky and our customers have been so supportive, but they have their own worries now.

click to enlarge Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, says there are some amazing books being released this year by Richmond authors. - SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE
  • Scott Elmquist/File
  • Ward Tefft, owner of Chop Suey Books, says there are some amazing books being released this year by Richmond authors.

Tefft: We are getting a lot of love through social media, virtual shopping, snail mail postcards and letters, and event food and drink gifts. But not having the chance to have longer meaningful conversations with our customers is taking its toll. If we are ever able to fully open again, that will of course change, so we live in a constant state of hope.  

With the existence of Amazon, a recent national recession and now the pandemic, how have brick-and-mortar stores survived?

Justice: People like shopping for books. And, as far as the recession goes, while not recession-proof, books are not like cars or vacations or expensive technology. People tend to give up big ticket items in a recession, but many still consider a book to be a reasonably priced, meaningful gift. Part of that meaning is derived from where you buy it and what that choice means. If you choose to buy it from Amazon because it’s cheaper, you’re also choosing to support that business model. People who choose to buy from their local independent bookstore are making a choice that expresses their values and they understand that that price difference is paying for something that means something to them. They are supporting people they know and an experience they enjoy. I understand that deeply and I want to do a better job every day to be worthy of that loyalty. I never take it for granted.  

Tefft: Amazon has always been and will always be a threat to small businesses across the board. But, Richmond does love its independent, locally owned businesses, and we have been humbled and amazed at the amount of support that we have been given.

Which books can you recommend during this significant moment in history?  

Justice: My first piece of official bookseller advice is to read whatever gives you what you need right now. If it’s distraction, read that. If it’s information, read for that. I’m doing a little of both. I’m reading a romance called “A Taste of Sage” by Yaffa S. Santos right now and it’s delicious and comes with bonus recipes. I’m also reading “When the World Feels Like a Scary Place: Essential Conversations for Anxious Parents & Worried Kids,” which has just been updated to include COVID and the news cycle, immigration, gender identity, social justice, icky things on the internet and more. I also just finished a zombie book by the late George Romero that was finished by Daniel Kraus called “The Living Dead.” I like my horror in books that I can shut, rather than on the news where I can’t do anything about it. 

Tefft: The protests and conscious-raising efforts this summer have highlighted the ever-present need for readers, especially white Americans, to be immersed in writings by [Black, Indigenous and people of color] authors. We have some great ones in, but I hesitate to give a short list; there was a huge demand for about five titles after the protests over George Floyd’s murder started and we noticed that when we couldn’t get these books because they were out of stock, customers would not take our suggestions for alternatives. They seemed to only want the ones that a specific list said they should read. Open yourself up to more voices! Read. Listen. Expand the scope.


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