You are the owner of this article.
You have permission to edit this article.

Turning the page: Local bookstores adapting to pandemic

  • Updated
  • 4 min to read

EAU CLAIRE — Margaret Leonard and Jill Heinke Moen initially expected their store to close for just a little while.

It was last March, and like many others at the time, they figured the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic would be relatively short-lived and that their business, Dotters Books, could soon reopen to in-person customers. When it was clear the pandemic was here indefinitely, Leonard‘s basement was converted into a de facto bookshop.

Shifting the operations to Leonard’s home was a significant change, but not totally unfamiliar. For about its first year, Dotters Books operated as a pop-up shop at various local events until the summer of 2018, when it moved into a brick and mortar store at 1602 Hogeboom Ave.

Dotters focuses on new books written by women and people of color; it also offers a variety of children’s books.

“It’s always been a real priority for us to ensure that the voices that are sometimes overlooked or marginalized are the ones that we’re stocking on our shelves,” Leonard said.

For the past 10-plus months, purchases have occurred through online ordering on the Dotters Books website. Because Leonard and Heinke Moen are not in one another’s COVID-19 bubbles, they haven’t gathered in person since the store closed. That means Leonard handles the daily logistics like orders, shipments, invoices and responds to emails. Most orders are local, but Dotters can ship anywhere across the country. There is also the option to pick up orders from Leonard’s house porch.

Changes have also occurred at CLC Book House, 501 Grover Road. The store closed in mid-March and reopened about two months later with a mask requirement. The shop is the official book house of the Church of the Lutheran Confession and is located on the campus of Immanuel Lutheran high school, college and seminary. CLC Book House offers Bibles, Christian books, daily devotions and other items like coffee mugs, jewelry and wall art.

There are three employees, the same number as before the pandemic, and the hours have slightly decreased for the brick and mortar store. Jessica Lau, CLC Book House manager, said online orders are a greater portion of sales now, particularly purchases from other CLC churches around the nation. During the pandemic, Lau said overall sales have slightly decreased, likely because of fewer in-person visits from people in the community.

Two items that Lau said have increased in demand during the pandemic are a daily devotional addressing how to handle the worries and challenges of life, and a meditation booklet to help process the death of a Christian loved one. Lau said it is rewarding to provide assistance to people dealing with difficult circumstances.

Jill Henke agreed. Henke is the general manager at Books-A-Million, 4030 Commonwealth Ave., and she said purchases increased for home activities like children’s educational workbooks, games, puzzles, journals and coloring books during the pandemic. Henke has enjoyed providing those options during a time when leisure options significantly decreased.

“There are so many things that we offer that you would want to have on hand if you have to stay home,” Henke said.

BAM closed its brick and mortar store in mid-March for a few months but had online ordering and curbside pick up available. The store eventually reopened with a mask requirement, additional disinfectant, hand sanitizer and cashier shields. Despite the massive disruptions, Henke said sales in 2020 were similar to the previous few years.

For Dotters Books, operations completely changed but business actually improved in 2020.

“This feels really strange to say, but last year was our best year when it comes to sales,” Leonard said.

Leonard attributed that increase to people seeking escapism while spending more time at home and book clubs purchasing more titles about race.

Demand for the types of books Dotters always offered increased after the death of George Floyd and summer of protests against racial injustice. Leonard said there were more purchases of tomes like “Stamped from the Beginning” and “The Vanishing Half,” particularly from local book clubs.

Leonard said bulk orders from book clubs is the main difference during the pandemic. Otherwise, sales have been about the same in terms of authors and genres.

Henke said it is similar at Books-A-Million, noting that there was a significant uptick in purchases of books about race starting last summer and an increase in political books bought leading up to the November 2020 election.

Another reason for increased sales at Dotters involves the focus on buying local, and Leonard appreciates the Eau Claire community’s support.

“It’s been overwhelming how incredible people have been in their generosity and patience to get us through all of this,” Leonard said. “I’ve always been aware of the special community that we managed to create around the shop, but that has never been more apparent ... It was incredible, the outpouring from the community to ensure that we can still be here when this is all done.”

Though Leonard and Heinke Moen cannot interact in person with customers, a few offerings still exist to provide connection through literature. Dotters is continuing its ongoing book club, but now the members meet virtually every month. Heinke Moen also leads story time for children most Saturday mornings on Facebook, a remote version of the activity that previously occurred at the physical store.

Leonard and Heinke Moen are the only two employees, so Dotters Books could be flexible and adjust to the pandemic. That doesn’t mean the transition was easy, though. Leonard said it has been difficult to find an equilibrium between her job and family while working from home, but she aims to balance the daily stresses of running a small business with gratitude that demand for the books has continued.

Although the shop sits nearly empty for now, Leonard said she and Heinke Moen will be “more than ready” to reopen when they and many others receive COVID-19 vaccinations.

In addition to business adjustments, Leonard’s personal reading habits have changed during the pandemic. She has consumed more books with a focus on storytelling, including series, and writers like James Baldwin have helped her process the tumult of the past year.

Lau has revisited the writings of Martin Luther and Bible passages, saying their timelessness provides comfort during a turbulent time.

“The challenges of life have been around for recorded history,” Lau said. “That’s one of the nice things about the Bible, is that it’s the same yesterday, today and forever. It applies to everybody no matter the time.”

The past 10 months have entailed a multitude of challenges, but bookstore proprietors have adjusted and found reward in providing customers some peace of mind through their products.