The entire cultural zeitgeist around what Americans mean by in-person shopping has shifted from “a leisure activity I enjoy doing” to “a calculated risk I sometimes have to take.” As Black Friday and Shop Local Saturday approach, some wonder if Cyber Monday will steal the show.
Western North Carolina’s many mom-and-pop shops have weathered the pandemic’s curveballs to the best of their ability, with varying means and degrees of success. Some local vendors have adopted online options as part and parcel of their day-to-day operations, while others say they haven’t needed to. Some, like Jo Gilley of Hazelwood’s Blue Ridge Books, have taken advantage of unique programs like Bookshop.org in addition to maintaining limited in-person hours.
“What we’re doing is kind of different,” said Gilley. “Independent bookstores all got together and formed Bookshop.org — but it isn’t through us, it’s through our distributor. So you’re not actually shopping books from our store, but we still get a little piece of the action.”
The website is essentially a way for over 800 independent bookstores to pool their resources, to help each other make it through a time where Amazon’s convenience dominates the bookselling world. Bookshop functions similarly to mega-sites like Amazon, with one key difference: if you select your local bookstore on the site, they receive the 30 percent of the profit, without having to worry about inventory or shipping. Even unspecified purchases help local stores — they all share 10 percent of the website’s general purchases, just for being members.
“It’s helped all of us a lot,” Gilley said. “It started right at the beginning of COVID, and we all get a profit sharing, a little piece of the pot.”
Even with Bookshop.org’s added monthly support, however, Blue Ridge Books is still struggling. Though they’ve expanded hours since the pandemic’s initial losses, Gilley said that she’s still afraid they might close every day.
“We’re gonna try our best to keep going,” she said. “We still don’t have normal hours, just because there’s no reason for me to pay somebody to stay here just to sell a newspaper or two.”
Gilley cited an outpouring of local support as the reason they’ve lasted this long.
“We were very fortunate that customers from all over were ordering books from us just to keep us viable during that bad time. We had other customers who just donated money to us, bought gift cards. We’re very grateful to all of them,” she said.
Sylva’s City Lights Bookstore dealt with similar challenges at the onset of the pandemic.
“A couple off-site events that we depend on were cancelled in March. We had to lay everyone off which was very painful,” said owner Chris Wilcox. “While we closed the shop floor, the cat and I stuck around to do curb service, the website, phone orders, text, Facebook messenger — we were taking orders however we could. That was it until we got into phase one of reopening.”
Though City Lights was significantly hampered by reduced occupancy — they still only allow nine people in the shop at one time — they were aided by their long-running independent website.
“We’ve been doing e-commerce for 20-something years,” said Wilcox. “So we were glad we had a little leg up. It’s a pretty full-functioning website. It works pretty well — people can opt to either pick up here, curbside, have things mailed. We’re trying to help people stay home, stay safe if that’s what they need to do.”
Wilcox was more prepared than most local vendors. Already well-practiced in mailing books all over the country, when COVID hit, City Lights had a system in place for locals to turn to.
“A lot of customers who’d never really had occasion to use it were like, ‘Oh, yeah, they do have a website!’ and so a lot of our old friends suddenly became web shoppers,” said Wilcox. “Having the website means that they can shop online and still shop local.”
City Lights also joined Bookshop.org.
“That organization is doing good work — they kind of take care of all the fulfillments so there’s not really a local pickup. They don’t really have some of our more locally published stuff though, so we still feel that our own website is a very useful tool. But we’re very grateful for what Bookshop is doing,” Wilcox said, adding, “It’s also a great way for authors to say, ‘you can get my books through bookshop’ instead of having to single out particular indie bookstores.”
Though times are still harder than usual, between their website, Bookshop.org, and strong local support, City Lights is doing just fine.
“We had five local authors drop new books this season. Any one of those books would have made a month for us in a normal year, and we had five! We had strong sales in July and August,” Wilcox said. “We were back down a little bit in September, but hey — back down a little bit is a new up. So we’re holding our own and we’re grateful for it.” He emphasized the importance of people shopping locally, saying, “you’re betting with your pocketbook on the importance of having a strong local economy.”
While many small vendors like Blue Ridge and City Lights have leaned into online shopping, others surprisingly haven’t needed to. Patricia Miller of Waynesville’s Affairs of the Heart, a gift boutique, said that she considered e-commerce in early March, but now simply doesn’t have the time.
“We’re technologically challenged,” she laughed. “I do think at the beginning it was tough for us not to have online shopping, but now we’re so busy!”
Affairs of the Heart closed in early March for a few weeks before reopening to sell hand sanitizer and masks along with their regular inventory.
“We opened a little early — we’d been doing curbside service, offering pick-up on Facebook. But the real turning point was when we opened our doors again,” said Miller. “People were getting their stimulus money but were going to the big box stores for gifts, because they were the only things open. So that’s when we decided that we were essential.”
Affairs of the Heart was curiously shielded from the brunt of COVID’s economic hardship.
“If you’d have told me in March that we’d be where we are now, I wouldn’t have believed you, said Miller. “Because once people started moving, it has been really busy. People are flocking to the mountains. They’re not going to the cities — they wanna come here and be outside and hike, so business has been phenomenal. I think we’ll actually end up on an up year!”
Though this influx of travelers increases the risk of COVID transmission, Miller believes that if we’re careful, we can walk that line.
“It’s a double-edged sword. All these people are coming in and you don’t know where they’re coming from and, yeah, that’s true, but you have to work. This is not a hobby for me,” she said. “So, we wear our masks, and we wash our hands, and that’s all we can do.”
Affairs of the Heart still offers pick-up orders and more socially-distanced options, but Miller said that she hasn’t had any requests.
“I would do it — I made a video for Shop Local Saturday saying ‘message me! We’ll pick out anything you want and have it ready for you outside. We’ll empty the whole shop for you to browse alone!’ But they haven’t asked for it.”
Miller, like Gilley and Wilcox, cited strong local support as the lifeblood of her pandemic success. “People have been so supportive,” she said. “The locals, who even way back bought gift cards and made a point to just come in and buy something, we are so grateful for. Though tourists are what help keep us in business, we truly love our locals, and we wish we had more of them. We’re very blessed.”
For those planning to shop local this weekend or on Cyber Monday, remember to check with your favorite local shops to see what they have to offer online or by curbside pickup to support the local economy.