I’m a bit of a book addict. And I’m deeply proud of this fact. Seven or eight months ago, before the idea of a global pandemic ever really crossed my mind, I probably went to a bookstore every couple of weeks. If I’d had a more unlimited book budget, I would have been in one weekly. They’re my happy places.
I worked at a used bookstore in college and it’s still one of my favorite places in the world. That was in Minnesota and I live in Portland now, but thankfully this city has no shortage of amazing bookstores. Even beyond the world-renowned Powell’s (which lives up the hype and beyond), there are countless little shops worth spending hours in.
And then the pandemic ruined everything. And yes, I could get bleak and talk about all the awful stuff we already know about. But what I really want to talk about is the fact that I couldn’t go to a bookstore for six months. Oregon is one of the more cautious states as far as lockdowns and virus protocols go, and I personally have taken a highly cautious approach to things as well.
The Online Option
So, naturally I spent that time shopping from bookstores online. And that helps too! It still keeps the small stores afloat to order from them online. And it became the new normal. But the experience of bookstore shopping that I lived for was gone (along with most other lovely things in life).
Buying online doesn’t provide that experience of browsing through the shelves and finding things you never expected, or talking to the salesperson about their favorite Faulkner titles, or musing over books you adored, or coming out with a larger-than-planned stack because there were just too many that spoke to you. That was the experience I loved and missed.
One of my favorite bookstores in Portland is called Wallace Books. It’s tucked into a little house in one of the best neighborhoods in the city, and does that endlessly charming thing that all the best bookstores do: trick you. What seems tiny on the outside is packed floor to ceiling with endless thousands of books inside, with room after room and hallway after hallway stretching on with more and more to look through. It’s a place the me of eight months ago would easily spend hours in with no desire to leave.
But over the past months they, like all businesses in Portland, have found new ways to let people continue to shop (and to stay afloat). For most of the pandemic months they were closed to shoppers and doing no-contact pick-ups with orders being made over the phone. I did this quite a few times, and it did give me a quick book-buying adrenaline rush. Patrons could also call asking after specific books and the lovely staff would go on a search or order the titles. They adjusted to the new normal, like every business.
The Business of Book Browsing
But just as book people live to browse through bookstores, bookstores live by having customers browse. When someone walks through the store, they’re vastly more likely to leave with several titles (or, let’s be real, a stack) than if they shop online for a specific title or two
So Wallace Books (like other small businesses around the country) got creative. In the last several weeks they’ve innovated a new safe version of in-person shopping: appointment-only browsing hours. I booked one. And it was one of the best hours of my week.
Private Shopping: Not Just for the Rich and Famous
It was not quite like the book shopping of the past, because sure, I wished it could have been a few hours, but in some ways it was also better. And it was yet another example of life being totally nuts now. Never in my life have I reserved time to privately shop at a store. But honestly… it was cool. If I could have bookstores to myself for the rest of my life I think I’d be ecstatic. I have never relished having to squeeze past strangers to get to the section I’m looking for.
They set it up as such: You call ahead and schedule a one-hour browsing window during their set hours. You can come by yourself or bring up to three friends or relatives with you. You arrive at the designated time, you come in, and the place is yours and only yours for that hour. The staff working will happily show you around (all safely masked up) and help you find things if needed. For one hour life took a break from being awful and I was just back inside a bookstore for the first time in seven months.
Yes, it’s a strange new world, and a lot of things are bad. But if I can privately and safely shop at a bookstore now, things are definitely weird, but at least one tiny thing has gotten better.
Annie Burdick is a writer and editor living in Portland, Oregon, but transplanted from the Midwest. She also works as a community inclusion specialist for adults with disabilities. Previously she's edited and written for magazines, websites, books, and small businesses, on an absurdly wide range of topics. She spends the rest of her time reading, eating good food, and finding new adventures in the Pacific Northwest.