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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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Bookstore boom: Some local shops seeing uptick in sales as library services remain limited

By Nina Culver The Spokesman-Review

Book lovers were left with few options last March and April as libraries and bookstores shut down over the coronavirus pandemic. But as things slowly reopened and stores launched curbside pickup and online ordering, business has gone well for several local bookstores.

Alexandra Lopez has owned Bookishly Happy Used Book Store in Coeur d’Alene for two years. She didn’t have an online store when she was forced to close, so she took pictures of the books on her shelves and posted them on Facebook and Instagram so people could order what they wanted.

“If you were in Coeur d’Alene or Post Falls, I would deliver for free,” Lopez said. “Surprisingly, we got a lot of business from that.” She also joined the American Booksellers Association and is now featured on bookshop.org.

Lopez has only owned the shop for two years, but it has been a presence in Coeur d’Alene for nearly 30 years. Still, Lopez said it seemed like many people didn’t know the store existed, and she benefited from the Coeur d’Alene library referring customers to her when they were shut down and she was open.

“We’re now busier than before we had to close,” she said. “I’m almost struggling to keep up.”

But Lopez said she knows that her story isn’t universal. Stores in other areas with tighter COVID-19 restrictions have struggled more. “I think I got lucky that I’m in Idaho,” she said. “That might be why we’re doing so well.”

Bookishly Happy offers a mix of fiction and non-fiction. Though business is going well, Lopez said that before she opened back up, she heard complaints from people who wanted to get back inside her shop. “People wanted to browse the shelves, pick up books and read the back,” she said.

Janelle Smith held the grand opening for Wishing Tree Books in a converted house in Spokane’s Perry District on Nov. 1, 2019. She had just set up an ordering website when she had to shut down in March. The site would prove to be her lifeline.

Her store specializes in children’s books, and Smith spent a few months filling online orders that she would deliver or set outside her door for pickup. “Now we are finally open,” she said. “We just limit the number of people.”

As a new business, there’s not much history to compare 2020 sales to, Smith said. This January and February were better than last January and February, before COVID-19 hit. This Christmas was also better than last Christmas. But the uptick could also be because her store wasn’t well known last year after it had just opened, Smith said.

“It’s so hard to figure out what to expect this year,” she said. “At least we’re going in the right direction.”

She’s just happy to have her doors open. “I didn’t dream of having an online bookstore,” she said.

Nathan Huston, owner of Giant Nerd Books on North Monroe Street near downtown Spokane, said he’s been doing OK, but is making plans to open a larger store in the Garland District so he can fit more customers. Currently, his small used book store is limited to five people at a time, including employees.

“The new space is three times as big,” he said. “At least in small part it was motivated by the pandemic.”

Huston’s store specializes in the unusual; the more unusual or weird, the better, he said. “I joke that I specialize in things other bookstores are afraid to sell,” he said. “I’ve got an occult section, but I’ve got an even bigger science section.”

His one loss this past year has been the revenue he got from setting up a booth at antique shows and comic conventions to sell books. However, he’s been selling plenty of books over the internet since the pandemic began.

“The store itself, the numbers appear to be up,” he said. “I won’t deny there’s been a little bit of belt-tightening, but overall, it’s been strong.”

Betsy Ashleman and her husband, Jim, bought 2nd Look Books in 2008, though the store itself has been open for 38 years. They sell mostly used books, but there’s a section of new books written by local authors. With 65,000 books on the shelves, there’s lots to read, she said. They offer everything from fiction to non-fiction to the classics.

“We have a pretty good selection of used books,” she said.

Ashleman doesn’t buy used books, but offers in-store credit to those with books they want to sell. This past year, people have been bringing in more books than usual, she said.

“We have a big customer base,” she said. “They’ve brought in a lot of donations.”

New books are expensive and her store offers an affordable alternative, Ashleman said. Suspense and mystery books are in demand right now. “Classics are always popular and romance, of course,” she said.

John Waite purchased Auntie’s Bookstore, a downtown Spokane institution, about five years ago. Having to shut down for nearly two months was a blow, but Waite said the store is coming back from it. “2020 was down from 2019, which was to be expected,” he said. “March and April were terrible.”

But the store quickly devised new ways to get books to customers. “We’ve done mail order since March, then we added curbside in May,” he said.

The store is open for browsing now, but Waite said people are still ordering online. “We’re still doing mail order,” he said. “That’s really brisk.”

The store often hosted author signings and readings and other events, but has been limited to hosting Zoom events in recent months. It has affected the bottom line, but Waite said business is still going well.

“We’re down, but not terribly,” he said. “Our customer base has been incredible and super loyal. We’re doing well and hanging in there.”

Waite said he intends to move forward cautiously, but he’s optimistic the day will come when he can host an in-person author signing again.

“We’ll get back to it,” he said. “We’re getting there. I think the world is heading the right way.”

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