Hardware Retailing is sharing select stories of independent businesses outside the home improvement industry to see how owners are grappling with operational changes amid COVID-19. Read on to discover how one bookseller in Michigan is continuing to forge community connections.
Nestled in the Midwest college town of Ann Arbor, Michigan, is Literati Bookstore, an independent bookstore beloved by its community. Owners Mike and Hilary Gustafson opened the independent bookstore in 2013, just two years after big-box bookstore Borders, which was headquartered in Ann Arbor, closed. Since opening the doors, Literati Bookstore has become a haven for book lovers to explore and connect with others who shared their passion for reading.
Yet when the COVID-19 pandemic led to state-ordered closures of nonessential businesses in mid-March, the Gustafsons made the difficult decision to close the store indefinitely. The following week, they created a GoFundMe to help meet their ongoing business expenses.
“Like everyone else, we have bills due, payroll, rent, utilities and liabilities,” Mike says. “At the time, I felt guilty, but I knew I needed to do anything possible to secure additional funds. We were not approved for the original Paycheck Protection Program loan application, which made this fundraising effort even more important.”
Within two days of launching the Literati Bookstore GoFundMe, their customers and supporters had rallied around them to hit their fundraising goal of $100,000. By late April, the total was nearly $120,000. In an update to those who donated, Mike and Hilary explained “the money will be used right now to keep people employed, pay our liabilities, and help enable us to move forward. It gives us breathing room.”
While the store remains closed to the public amid ongoing restrictions on retail, it continues to be a vital resource for its customers through online orders and digital events. Additionally, the majority of its employees are serving customers from their own homes right now, too.
“Most everyone is working from home except a few who come into the store to fulfill various things,” Mike says. “It’s been a learning curve—our entire mission statement has been built around bringing people together. We’ve had to learn to adapt and invent a new way of doing things. For example, we’ve been encouraging our part-time booksellers to blog about their favorite books. It’s just one small way we can reach our customers even though everyone is at home.”
With the doors shut to the public, online orders at Literati Bookstore have been significant for the company to continue generating income, making the store operate similarly to a distribution center at this time, Mike says.
“To my employees’ credit, everyone adjusted, learned new skills and began to invent new systems for processing all the orders from our website,” Mike says. “Each week, we’ve had to change and grow and it’s been a challenge, but we don’t have any other options at this point. We have to do it or we go out of business.”
In addition to not being able to have customers shop the aisles of the store, the temporary brick-and-mortar closure has had an impact on another revenue-generating aspect of the business: live events.
“We have always had a robust events schedule; we regularly host 200 events a year,” Mike says. “It’s a major revenue stream for us. Without that, we just asked ourselves, what could we do? How can we support the authors who have new books out—authors who may not now get that exposure they normally would and depend on?”
To help authors connect with customers and the Ann Arbor community, Mike and his team decided to host a series of online events to help authors publicize their work and provide the Ann Arbor community with a virtual gathering spot.
“Surprisingly, our customers enjoy these digital conversations with authors. It’s been a nice way to spend an evening. We may continue to do things like this even after we re-open,” Mike says.
For any independent business looking to reconnect with its community and customers amid COVID-19 social distancing orders, Mike suggests reaching out to other retailers to share ideas and provide support. Mike says looking to other independent booksellers has helped the company learn from its peers.
“Reach out to businesses in other cities in your state and outside your state,” he says. “Find a group of supportive business owners. Start an email chain. Get the conversation going. We are in this together.”
Though he operates a business outside the home improvement industry, Mike says all retailers should continue to empower customers to do the projects they may have more time for around the house.
“When I go to a hardware store, I shop there because I can talk with their staff, a group of knowledgeable, kind and helpful individuals,” he says. “Find a way to connect your staff and have them talk out projects with customers. Create virtual ‘project assessors,’ who can help customers walk through various at home projects. Educate them and have fun with it. You may reach people you never have and find your business attracting new customers for life.”
Although it’s unclear when the doors of Literati Bookstore can be opened again and what retail will look like in the coming months, Mike cannot wait for the day their customers can return.
“I look forward to seeing people browsing the bookshelves again,” he says. “That’s why we started this business—there is a beauty and need in our lives to have whimsy, to surprise one’s self. That’s what bookstores can provide:access to finding a new idea or new voice, a new book you would never find online.”