Used bookstores are refusing to become victims of Covid-19 and disappear. During the pandemic, they’ve reinvented themselves and fought against adversity. Their business model is to encourage reading by buying used books and reselling them. They house literary jewels that they hope shoppers will find on their shelves.
The emergency health decree meant that these places had to close. Reading wasn’t considered an essential activity. Many worried about their future and more than a few predicted that they would close permanently. But the owners went for a new business model: using social media, showing books virtually and (why not) doing home delivery.
We at Tec Review collect the stories of these booksellers and tell you their struggle through hard times.
Social media to the rescue
Three years ago, Luigi Amara founded the bookstore La Murciélaga (The Female Bat) with his friends. They took every measure to prevent infection and closed their doors. But their sales continue.
“We’ve used social media to advertise books, to comment on things, to make jokes. During the pandemic, a lot of people were asking us if we could send books to other states. So, we started to develop the ability to do home delivery,” says Amara.
The doors of La Murciélaga remain closed, and the partners are waiting until the warning level goes to yellow to reopen, but their system of customer service over social media has paid off.
“(With the pandemic) we strengthened our online sales, and with the help of a neighbor, who has a bicycle courier home delivery service, this is basically how we’ve been able to survive. We also advertise books online.”
Now, Amara only goes to the bookstore to do deliveries of specific books that were ordered through social media.
A new home
The story of the bookstore A Través del Espejo (Through the Looking Glass) began more than 25 years ago. That is to say, even longer than it has been on Alvaro Obregón in the Roma neighborhood of Mexico City. Its final closure was this past July 4th. Now, the store’s books are migrating to their new home, in search of a new chapter to be written.
Its owner, Selva Hernández, third generation of a family of booksellers, has taken the most special titles to La Oficina del Libro (The Book Office), where they’re already on sale. She has plans to grow the business in September.
“We’re thinking of a traveling bookstore. We have the containers, and we have another bookstore called La Oficina del Libroin the Condesa neighborhood. It was already a bookstore, just in the garage, dedicated to antique, rare, first edition books (some signed) but now we’re going to open the whole house as a bookstore,” she says.
Her plans go beyond the sale of special books, since it takes time for people to encounter reading. Hernández is preparing a more welcoming environment: cultural activities, presentations, readings, and even chilaquiles and coffee service.
The closing of the Roma bookstore (which went viral on social media in early July) attracted 1,000 people in a line going around the block. Apparently, the spirit of A Través del Espejo will endure in the form of other projects.
Bookstores and readers
Amara and Hernández agree that selling books is not a challenge unique to used bookstores. It’s a challenge shared with the sale of new books and reading in general.
In Mexico, the percentage of people over the age of 18 who claim to read a magazine, newspaper, comic strip, or online content dropped 10.7 % between 2016 and 2020.
Only four out of every 10 Mexicans reported reading a book in the last 12 months, according to figures from the National Institute of Statistics and Geography (Inegi) Reading Module.
“(Bookstores) are businesses that are precarious, unstable, and difficult to sustain. On the other hand, there is the rise of Amazon, the kind of mega-corporation that (in some ways) also causes small businesses to fail,” says Amara.
However, the formula that helps used bookstores prevail is the sanctuary they give to readers. “The bookstore needs to be viewed as a gathering place,” he adds.
However, Enrique Tamés Muñoz, Dean for the Northern Region of the School of Humanities at Tec de Monterrey and director of the Monterrey International Book Fair, points out that reading habits and the number of bookstores are not directly related.
“Reading habits are created and reinforced, otherwise they won’t be developed. Not so much because bookstores exist or not, but because of what happens in more intimate environments such as the home, school, family, friends. That’s what directly influences the very low reading levels in Mexico,” he says.
The possibility of being a place for sharing experiences is the key to the success of some bookstores, for both used and new books.
“The survival of bookstores has to do with where they are located. There are two or three places in Mexico City and another place in Guadalajara that are successful because people go there to get together socially, as well as to buy a book. They go for a nice coffee, to read the newspaper, they go to meet a friend or relative, or there’s a nice park,” Tamés says.
So, Hernández and Amara’s business idea is on track. But there are still other threats to bookstores, such as high rents and even bad weather.
Rain and bad weather
La Murciélaga survived the water (the enemy of books) after last year’s rainy season. “One of the most serious problems was that the city government came to do some work on the sidewalks, but without the slightest planning. The result was that the bookstore started to flood,” Amara recalls.
To rid themselves of this problem, the bookstore owners made their own water containment system to withstand the rainy season. This year, they’re still perfecting their flood prevention work.
For her part, Hernández also had problems with a storm that dampened some of the books in A Través del Espejo, which she gave away to visitors to the store. However, her biggest challenge was the rent.
“I couldn’t pay the rent for April and May because I’d had no sales since March. Taking advantage of that breach, the owner of the location asked me to terminate the contract early. When the government gave the green light to open the bookstore, the people responded,” says Selva Hernández.
With the sales she made at the closure of A Través del Espejo and a donor campaign, Hernández brought rent payments up to date and bought a truck to move the books. The next use of the truck will also be as a traveling bookstore.
“I come from a family of booksellers, and they’ve closed several of their bookstores. They’ve closed about four due to the pandemic. With or without Covid, I had to close because the owner had already asked me for the location. He was asking for much higher rent than what I was paying,” she says.
Even with these difficulties, booksellers are going through a new stage. The pandemic is testing businesses and those who thrive are the ones who don’t stand idle,” Hernández says.