Boxed Out: 4 Bookstores in L.A. During COVID-19

I acknowledge that pleas to support independent bookstores, especially during the pandemic, are nothing original. Just recently, The New York Times highlighted how crucial it is to support local bookstores. And the American Booksellers’ Association, or the ABA, recently launched their “Boxed Out” campaign to encourage people to shop indie, complete with cardboard installations covering bookstores across the country, indicating how indie bookstores have been shut out by Amazon deliveries. So while articles like these may sound repetitive, as the pandemic wreaks havoc on the economy, while billionaires get even richer, it’s become vitally important to sound the alarms to support indie booksellers right now. According to the CEO of ABA, Allison K. Hill, “More than one indie bookstore a week has closed since the Covid-19 crisis began.”

Even as a bibliophilic creative writing graduate, it’s easy for me to take local bookstores for granted until they’re threatened. Upon hearing proclamations over how dire circumstances have become and not wanting my community to lose more indie bookstores, I interviewed four different booksellers in my area. Of course, these profiles represent only a fraction of the numerous independent bookstores across the greater Los Angeles area.

Bel Canto Books, Long Beach

Bel Canto Books is “a proudly woman- and POC- owned independent bookstore” and particularly tries to promote books by marginalized groups. It is located within The Hangout, “a women-led shop collective in Long Beach CA that includes Bel Canto Books, a plant store called the Golden Garden, and vintage and lifestyle finds from The Hangout.” These shops allow for a variety of self-nurturing products that are badly needed during these times; Belfer noted that plants, cookbooks, travel books, and children’s books have been particularly sought out, although anti-racist, #ownvoices, and U.S. history books have also been more popular than usual.

Bel Canto Books’ retail space was closed from early March to May, plummeting sales eighty to ninety percent and prompting a book concierge service with free local delivery. Beyond this initiative, partnerships with libro.fm and Bookshop, online events, and socially distanced shopping have also helped with sales and connection to the community. Thankfully, customers have been understanding of the publishing, printing, and delivery issues that have arisen from the pandemic and “folks in Long Beach have long been supporters of shopping locally and supporting small businesses.”

“I think the pandemic really opened people’s eyes to the need to invest in their local communities and patronize the restaurants, shops and local services that they want to see survive.” — Jhoanna Belfer, Bel Canto Books

You can support Bel Canto books at their Bookshop page, libro.fm page, or their website.

{pages} a bookstore, Manhattan Beach

Located in downtown Manhattan Beach, {pages} prides itself on “a carefully curated selection of new fiction, non-fiction, children’s, cooking, surf, coffee table books and bestsellers.” Since the pandemic, its booksellers have had to become even more selective in their curation, as owner Linda McLoughlin Figel recognizes that “publishers, printers, wholesalers, freight carriers, and the USPS are all impacted by the pandemic.” {pages} is buying more copies of fewer titles, like Barack Obama’s upcoming The Promised Land, Jerry Seinfeld’s Is This Anything?, and Ina Garten’s Modern Comfort Food.

{pages} has maintained great relations with its staff and the community despite hardships. The store “made the decision very early on in the pandemic (mid-March) that [it] would keep all staff on payroll and pay employees based on the prior two month’s average hours and pay,” and events have seamlessly moved online, with double the amount of virtual author events, continued book club meetings, and virtual author visits to local schools. Linda expressed gratitude for “the warm embrace and support we are receiving from our long term customers and new clientele and stressed that “this year more than ever, sales during [the shopping days between Thanksgiving and Christmas] will determine our profitability for the year.”

“A significant benefit of being a small business is that we are very nimble and quick to respond to changing trends, demands and challenges. As such, we are proud of the way {pages} quickly pivoted to being an online retailer and provider of virtual content.” — Linda McLoughlin Figel, {pages}

You can support {pages} on their online shop.

The Ripped Bodice, Culver City

“The Ripped Bodice is the only exclusively romance bookstore on the West Coast.” Owned and founded by sisters Bea and Leah Koch, it features a wide selection of romance fiction, offers gift items from woman-owned and independent businesses, and creates initiatives to uplift and increase diversity in romance novels. Before the pandemic, The Ripped Bodice also held about a dozen community events per month, from book clubs to stand-up comedy nights to writing workshops. Though going virtual has its downsides, Leah Koch praises the recent ability to reach authors and attendees from across the world.

The Ripped Bodice has adapted in other ways, too. It started a care package program for people to order for themselves and their loved ones. This was a fitting move for difficult times, reflected by the large number of comfort reads ordered particularly at the start of the pandemic. The bookstore also has to stay aware of changing health trends and new laws because of lack of guidance from the government, increasing the safety of both staff and customers.

“I think the most difficult thing is the lack of ability to plan for the future. Because we have absolutely no idea what is coming, it’s very hard to make plans and grow our business for the future.” — Leah Koch, The Ripped Bodice

You can support The Ripped Bodice on their online shop.

Creating Conversations, Redondo Beach

Creating Conversations has the particularly tricky position of being not only a bookstore but also an author event business during a pandemic and therefore, their entire business model has been forced to shift. Before, the store would supply books for events almost every day and now there are obviously zero in-person events. While there have been far more online events than before, Terry Louchheim Gilman, managing partner, notes how “Zoom fatigue” has set in after seven-plus months of lockdown, and it’s become more difficult to attract people to online author events, which are already generally not as lucrative.

Creating Conversations has accordingly adjusted their practices in order to stay relevant, and their website has improved to keep up with online orders. A few browsers visit their physical store, but it’s “pretty hit-and-miss.” Meanwhile, it’s utilized their partnerships with previous connections, like book festivals, to sell books and develop new virtual programs to connect with others. Like other bookstores, Creating Conversations worries over disruptions to the supply chain. Gilman emphasized another one of ABA’s campaigns, “October is the New December,” which encourages buyers to do their holiday shopping early so that booksellers can know which books are in demand, have more time to process orders, and receive a steadier stream of income.

“Readers need to support us actively, but not just Creating Conversations. All indie bookstores need support, and now is the time to appreciate the role bookstores play in our communities (and in our lives) and ensure they are here for all of us in the future.”—Terry Louchheim Gilman, Creating Conversations

You can support Creating Conversations by making purchased through their website.

I acknowledge the unfairness of putting the weight of the survival of valuable institutions on the backs of consumers, many of whom are facing their own economic hardship. Even before the pandemic, lack of affordable real estate and the domination of Amazon indicated that the main problem is not lack of interest in reading, but the economic structures in place that favor predatory capitalist practices. An Electric Literature article featured a Twitter thread from Lexi Beach, the co-owner of Astoria Bookshop in Queens, New York, where she emphasized that “the bigger problem lies in the relationship between capitalism, the commercial real estate market, and the toxic marriage between the two for low-margin businesses like bookstores.”

Going forward, we must push for long-term policy change: more government support for small businesses, higher taxation on corporations like Amazon, and rent control. Bookstores need a more consistent support foundation than GoFundMe or op-eds. But in the short-term, it’s vital that we ensure these community spaces are around whenever this pandemic ends. So, if you have the means to do so, please consider supporting one of the aforementioned bookstores, or any other independent bookstore in your own community (and if you don’t have one in your area, Bookshop is an excellent way to support indies as a collective).

Recent creative writing grad located in Los Angeles. She/her. kayjewel98@gmail.com

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