Media outlets blew up with regards to supporting small, local businesses during the pandemic. But how did those businesses navigate the ‘new normal’ to be accessible for customers in the middle of a global lockdown?
Located 80 miles away from Redwood City, Friends’ Community Bookstore of Marina, California first opened shop in November of 2017. Fully run by volunteer work, the group first started doing book sales in the front lobby of the Marina Library; With book donations rapidly increasing, the store moved from community rooms of the library to classroom portables from local schools, eventually leading to leasing their permanent residence on 330 Reservation Road.
The store is comprised of a total of six rooms, the front four dedicated to shelves full of books, CDs, and records, while the back two are for inventory and general management. It is positioned at the corner of a small plaza in Marina, surrounded by local restaurants and ethnic markets. Racks and tables full of books are placed on the outside of the store, inviting customers into the charming shop.
Terri Wheeler is a core volunteer for the bookstore, honing her position as member of the bookstore committee and co-manager of the physical shop along with another volunteer, Gail Youngblood.
Days before the county lockdown, Wheeler and the rest of the committee decided to close the store due to safety concerns, especially with the majority of the volunteers being older and at higher risk for COVID-19. During that time, the committee met through Zoom and came up with innovative ways to keep the store running, including personal book shopping.
“We had two to three volunteers working on it, and eventually one volunteer,” Wheeler said. “But we set up an email that I’ve managed and, you know, reached out on facebook and things like that. And so people would email me and say, ‘I’m looking for this particular book, do you have it?’ or ‘I just, I want some biographies to read, I need something to read.’”
However, this process was not meant for permanent residence; With their reopening on April 20, the community bookstore canceled the personal shopping. “That was to kind of get us through, to be able to sell some books, and get books into people’s hands during the pandemic when the store couldn’t safely be open.” Wheeler said.
Convenience was another major influence on consumers during lockdown, which turned many people to online shopping platforms like Amazon and Instacart. Along with the personal shopping, Friends’ Community Bookstore is also a regular vendor through Amazon, working with the site since 2016.
“When we get book donations we look up prices and ratings on Amazon, and anything that meets the parameters of something that would be profitable for us to sell through Amazon goes to be listed.” Wheeler said.
Currently, tensions are high between small businesses and e-commerce retailers like Amazon, so seeing these two competitors work together is atypical. “I think for us, we can reach a bigger audience through Amazon,” Wheeler said. “Sometimes we get books that are-like we got a bunch of magic books and things like that. There may not be somebody locally who’s interested in those books, especially spending a little more money on those books. So by putting it on Amazon, we open up to the whole world.”
But however instantaneous online shopping can be, everything always has its drawbacks.
“There’s that kind of human interchange and it’s just a, I don’t know, a richer shopping experience.” Wheeler explained. “Because if you go online to purchase something you probably-you’ll purchase it, but you’re not going to find out what else is out there, you know. Here, you might come in looking for something in particular and you don’t find it but you find, you know, a bunch of other stuff you didn’t even know about. I don’t think you do that online.”
Shopping small and locally can also be a rewarding way to make a statement. “It is a way to support the community that you’re living in and that feels really good to me to know that I’m purchasing something here,” Wheeler expressed. “That’s why I would come here and buy things before I would just go to a big box store and buy something, you know, so the CEO gets richer.”