The coronavirus has threatened the survival of south Louisiana’s independent bookstores, robbing them of the very thing that helps them successfully compete against internet sales and big-box stores: face-to-face interaction.

Before the virus forced customers into isolation, locally owned stores relied on events, curated selections and individual help for shoppers who wandered through the door.

As they try to limit financial fallout, bookstore owners have adapted their sales strategies, turning to online orders, social media and virtual events to outlast government-ordered shutdowns.

Though the pandemic presents a murky future to their industry, booksellers believe they serve a crucial purpose. They may provide some comfort while people wait for Louisiana’s mass self-isolation to end.

“You're not really in isolation when you have a book in your hand,” said Tom Lowenburg, co-owner of Octavia Books in New Orleans.

Octavia Books has adopted a curbside system to respect social distance guidelines and remain in business. As readers approach the storefront, they call to pick up their orders. Employees then place brown paper bags filled with books, puzzles and games on a wooden Adirondack chair and return indoors, allowing customers to grab their purchase without face-to-face interaction.

Signs taped on the chair and nearby windows read, “We are closed for browsing!” and “Respect the 6ft.”

The internet once challenged the existence of local bookstores, but the last two months, many independents in Louisiana have used it to keep their businesses afloat. Their social media pages buzz with activity, and they promote online orders through their websites.

While helping sales, the internet has also allowed bookstores to maintain a sense of community during isolation. Michelle and John Cavalier, owners of Cavalier House Books in Denham Springs, hosted a digital version of their monthly book club last week.

They have also taken viewers on a virtual tour of their personal bookshelves, and hosted online author events, reminding the surrounding community they still exist.

Though Michelle Cavalier has missed in-person interactions with customers, she still feels connected to them in a virtual setting. Cavalier specializes in children’s literature, and throughout the closures, she has received messages from parents asking for recommendations for their children. The parents supply information on their children's interests, then Cavalier creates a specialized list.

“Normally when a kid loves I book I recommended, I'm on cloud nine," Cavalier said. "Right now, knowing so many kids are struggling to feel connected to anything in the world, that’s really keeping me going.”

Events are the lifeblood of an independent bookstore, creating a community gathering place that fosters ideas, promotes literacy and brings large groups into the store. 

Unable to let people gather, local bookstores have moved events online. Garden District Book Shop in New Orleans, which typically hosts 75 to 80 events per year, has scheduled about six virtual events, including weekly Happy Hours with authors on Facebook Live.

The sessions give viewers a break from isolation, a chance to talk to other people about their lives and feel a sense of connection.

“It doesn't even have to be about books,” owner Britton Trice said.

Social media and online orders have helped Garden District maintain some sales with their door closed, but "it's still a fraction of what our daily sales normally are," Trice said.

Sales have dropped "tremendously" at Cottonwood Books in Baton Rouge, owner Danny Plaisance said. The store doesn’t have a website, so Plaisance advertised over-the-phone orders on its Facebook page. One day, he filled eight orders. Another, he opened the store for three hours and no one walked inside.

“Luckily I had a decent savings,” said Plaisance, who bought the store in 1986, “and I've been using that.”

The coronavirus struck at a time of optimism for local bookstores across the country. After online retail and nationwide chains shook the bookselling industry, print sales had rebounded as independent stores experienced a rebirth.

According to the Association of American Publishers, year-to-date industry sales rose 3.5% the first two months of 2020. The American Booksellers Association, a nonprofit trade organization for independent bookstores, had more members last year than in 2009. Local bookstores fostered a sense of connection in their communities.

“Having that special one-on-one recommendation from your local bookseller, that's the kind of thing you can't get when you're shopping online,” said Marissa DeCuir, President of Books Forward, a publicity and marketing firm with a branch in New Orleans.

As sales drop nationwide, local bookstores have found some financial relief. The #SaveIndieBookstores social media campaign has raised more than $950,000 for local stores. Some bookstores also received money from the federal Paycheck Protection Program, which helps pay employees and rent.

But the assistance cannot cover all the income lost during the shutdowns. Book festivals, conventions and writers’ conferences have been canceled or postponed. Some authors have changed launch dates, and publishers have pushed e-books.

Lowenburg felt concerned when coronavirus shutdowns began, but with people searching for reading material the last two months, Octavia Books has maintained normal operating hours. It only closed on Easter.

Every afternoon, Lowenburg has packed books into his car to deliver orders. The store has provided free shipping and delivery around New Orleans on orders of at least $25, and Lowenburg spent 2½ hours one night dropping off books throughout the city, reaching the Lower 9th Ward and crossing to West End.

“People still need books,” Lowenburg said. “Our customers are keeping us busy.”

When bookstores reopen for browsing, the owners look forward to interactions with customers. They don’t know when events will resume or how soon sales will rebound, but they can’t wait to tell shoppers about new books and make recommendations again as they exchange stories from the shutdown.

“It's going to be insanely difficult,” Michelle Cavalier said. “I don't know what things are going to look like. But I am optimistic for my business. I'm optimistic for our industry. And ultimately, I'm optimistic for our world.”

Every day inside her store, Cavalier has walked past “Untamed” by Glennon Doyle, a memoir that promotes empowerment in women and the importance of trusting your voice. Cavalier remembers one of Doyle’s mantras — “We can do hard things” — and repeats it to herself.

“Yes, Glennon,” Cavalier said. “We can do hard things.”


Email Wilson Alexander at walexander@theadvocate.com