As the pandemic hit in March and Russia began barring citizens from leaving the house in most circumstances, staff at independent Siberian bookshop Peremen realised they had a week to come up with a plan to keep the business afloat.
“We spent the whole time writing posts everywhere to tell everyone: ‘Guys, we’ll all have to sit at home soon, but if we don’t sell anything while you’re sitting at home, there won’t be any small business left when you get out,’” says Anna Yakovleva, Peremen’s director.
To entertain her customers while keeping the bookshop afloat, Yakovleva added an option on Peremen’s website to buy “books in a bag”. Customers wrote what genres they liked and indicated how much they were willing to spend on the mystery bags; Peremen’s staff sent them out as far away as St Petersburg, the other end of Siberia and the Arctic. One local woman found herself stranded by border closures in Colombia, where she ordered 2,000 roubles’ (£20) worth of books by mail every month.
“It turned out that people found it a lot easier not to choose anything when they were stuck at home,” says Yakovleva. “That’s how we survived all of April and May. Ninety per cent of our sales were from that.”
Peremen, meaning “Changes”, appeared in Novosibirsk in 2014 after its founders grew tired of the limited assortment available in chain bookshops. Though Novosibirsk is Siberia’s largest city, boasting several top universities and scientific research centres as well as one of Russia’s major opera houses, its 1.5m residents long had to make do with Russian classics and the bestseller list, Yakovleva says. Aiming to fill that gap, Peremen focuses on Russia’s smaller publishers of foreign and experimental fiction, feminist literature, art and critical theory, and popular science.
“All of our readers in the city know that we have what you can’t get anywhere else,” Yakovleva says. “If you want an Argentinian novel in translation with a tiny print run, we’re the only place you can go.”
Yakovleva says creating a community around the “books in a bag” helped sustain the shop at a time when events, their other main source of income, remain banned. The Kremlin largely ignored an open letter from booksellers and publishers asking for rent subsidies as well as VAT and postal waivers for books, instead only giving small businesses a six-month tax holiday.
Peremen managed to avoid letting staff go thanks to finding a government-backed loan and agreeing a significant rent discount. Other stores have fared worse: Respublika, a trendy Moscow-based chain, filed for bankruptcy in October, while independent shops across the country have shut their doors in recent months.
Despite a popular myth that Russians read more than anyone worldwide, there are only about 90 independent bookshops from St Petersburg to Vladivostok — fewer, by comparison, than in London. Some, however, are in better shape to cope than the chains because smaller publishers have largely withdrawn their books from Russia’s answers to Amazon, which often sell them at significant discounts.
With real incomes in a six-year slump even before the pandemic, Yakovleva says customers’ habits have changed: if readers would spend 2,000 to 3,000 roubles at a time, most now only buy one book. Genre preferences have changed, too. Business literature, which accounted for most of Peremen’s sales a few years ago, now gathers dust on its shelves as readers turn to thick Russian novels and literary essays.
The sense of community around those harder-to-find books is keeping Peremen afloat. “All the publishers, owners, publicists, and booksellers are relying on each other, not the state,” Yakovleva says. “We don’t exist for them. They have no idea we exist.”
Just before Scotland went into lockdown in March, Mairi Oliver, the owner-manager of Lighthouse bookshop in Edinburgh, recalls one of her transgender regulars coming into the store. “She burst into tears and said, ‘This is my last day of being me, because I have got to go home now.’ She couldn’t afford to stay in Edinburgh, which meant moving back in with her parents and living as the son her parents thought they had.”
Lighthouse is a queer-owned and women-led independent community bookshop with a strong social mission. It promotes non-mainstream and political writers, and stocks more than 10,000 titles across most genres. The encounter underscored for Oliver the sheer isolation that many of the bookshop’s regular customers would face during lockdown, physically cut off from their communities. She set out to address this.
“I think by virtue of the fact that we believe in ourselves as a bookshop for people who face more oppression in the world, we have a lot of regulars who are part of the precariat: gig economy workers, freelancers, artists who are not getting help from the government,” says Oliver. “Our readership is hurting particularly hard with the fallout from the pandemic. So that’s been tough because it’s very personal.”
In response to these challenges, Lighthouse ramped up its Pay-It-Forward (PIF) voucher initiative, which allows customers who can afford it to help those who don’t have the resources to buy a book. “It really grew through the pandemic, both in terms of people using it and people giving,” says Oliver, who bought the bookstore in 2017. Since March Lighthouse has been able to get hundreds of pounds’ worth of books to readers, often distributing them through local charities. “I think there’s such solidarity among readers,” she adds, “People for whom books matter understand what a lifeline they can be.”
Lighthouse also worked with local charities such as Women’s Aid and the Edinburgh Crisis Centre, putting their flyers in orders made through the pay-it-forward scheme, “or anyone who was ordering books that put up a little red flag that maybe they were struggling”.
Before the pandemic, Lighthouse offered only three books for sale on its website. In March Oliver convinced her brother-in-law, a web designer, to build an online shop, and by the end of June it offered about 500 titles for sale online. Lighthouse has since relaunched the website and is now building an online community platform, bringing together events, chat rooms and blog posts.
This year annual sales are on track to reach around £300,000, in line with 2019, although profit margins were squeezed as sales moved online. Sales held up despite the store being closed for several months because Lighthouse recorded one of its strongest months in June, in the aftermath of the killing of George Floyd.
“People wanted to buy anti-racist books from anti-racist bookshops and we sold hundreds and hundreds of books,” says Oliver. There was huge demand for a handful of works: Me and White Supremacy: Combat Racism, Change the World, and Become a Good Ancestor; So You Want to Talk About Race; Your Silence Will Not Protect You; and How to Be an Antiracist.
Lighthouse put profits from these sales back into local community projects such as Fringe of Colour, an initiative that is dedicated to supporting people of colour at the Edinburgh festivals, as artists, workers and audience members, and the Free Black University. “We’re white-owned and so it felt like to profit off police brutality against black people was weird and wrong,” says Oliver. “It’s just that cycle where people were really good to us so we got to be really good to others.”
For 44 years, Kramerbooks has been a mainstay of Dupont Circle in Washington — its crammed bookshelves and quirky layout spilling into an adjoining café, in a leafy neighbourhood dotted with throwback haunts and historic mansions. This spring that threatened to change.
As the pandemic raged across the US — muddled, some would argue, by the actions of a certain individual in the White House just a mile away — Kramerbooks’ new owner announced the bookstore would be closing up shop in its historic locale following a long-running dispute with its landlords. The backlash and outcry were swift. And, according to the owner, premature.
Not long after the eulogies began to pour in, Steve Salis, who bought the bookstore from the original owners in 2016, clarified that the shop would be staying its current location for the next few years at least, and perhaps not until its current lease is up in 2026.
In the meantime, the shop has had a Covid-era rebranding that includes a new name, “Kramers”. While Salis had planned for a $3m overhaul of the establishment, he has settled in pandemic-times for a more modest, scrappier renovation that he has suggested will potentially include an adjoining flower store and barber shop. The café, now rebranded as All Day by Kramers, stays.
The eclectic add-ons feel in keeping with Kramers’ bohemian roots. It may not be the most illustrious bookstore in DC — that honour likely goes to its more staid rival, Politics & Prose, the first pit-stop for any bestselling writer, politician and other marquee author on a bells-and-whistles book tour. But it has hosted the likes of Maya Angelou, Toni Morrison, Andy Warhol and Monica Lewinsky. And its history has been woven into the fabric of the city and the people who live there.
In 2014, a cousin of mine ended up at the bookshop on a first date that morphed from dinner at a nearby restaurant into strolling through the aisles — picking up books they had and hadn’t read — and eventually poring over a book of questions and quizzing each other on their families, fears and dreams. Reader, they married.
A year and a half later, my then-boyfriend and I moved to DC and into a third-floor walk-up two-and-a-half-blocks away. Reader, we also married. A few years later, I spent my maternity leave navigating an oversized pram up and down the narrow aisles. Our daughter likes to munch on the bookstore’s trademark brightly coloured bookmarks.
In the years since the bookstore first set up shop, the neighbourhood has changed. Dupont Circle has become more yuppie and less bohemian, with fewer dive bars and more million-dollar-row homes. No matter. Kramerbooks — excuse me, Kramers — can sometimes feel like a relic of that other era, in the best possible way.
Will the bookstore move locations eventually? Perhaps. For now, however, it stays. And thank goodness for that.
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