For some small businesses, the COVID-19 shutdowns could be a death sentence. In order to survive, owners are having to quickly pivot to new ways of doing business.
That includes Mike Gustafson. He owns Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor with his wife Hilary. On March 13, they told customers the store would be closed indefinitely due to the coronavirus pandemic. After their announcement, they received a flood of online orders. Literati sells mostly out of their storefront, and typically only gets 10 to 15 online book orders a day. After they announced they were closing the store, that number surged to more than 700 orders.
The Literati staff had to quickly ramp up their infrastructure for online sales. The adjustment to running an entirely online operation has been a difficult, but “welcomed challenge,” said Gustafson. He said he's grateful to have customers rallying around his business.
“It almost feels like a scene out of an old-timey movie where people around not just Ann Arbor, but around the entire country, are putting their money where their mouths are and saying ‘We don’t want you to close,’” Gustafson said. “I think a lot of people are really starting to understand the serious and potentially perilous situation that small businesses like mine, who have under 50 employees, are faced with.”
If one were to peek into the windows of Literati these days, Gustafson said, you wouldn’t see a tidy, independent bookstore. Instead you would see packing materials and boxes strewn about the checkered floor. They are simultaneously training employees how to fulfill online book orders, while also attempting to meet the very sudden increase in demand.
Though they are eating the costs of reduced shipping fees, Gustafson said he's hopeful that the large quantity of books sold will balance the losses. He said they are also committed to keeping their part- and full-time workers on payroll at least until the end of March.
“Hilary and I have dedicated and set aside some personal savings to pay this payroll just to give everybody on staff a fighting chance,” Gustafson said. “We’re hopeful that, because so many of us are in the same position, that there could be some creative solutions nationwide about this challenge.”
While the storefront remains closed, Gustafson said his staff has started brainstorming ways to interact with their customers from afar through digital book clubs and online writing courses.
Oh, and if you’re looking to buy a dystopian novel from Literati—you may be out of luck. It probably won't surprise you that most titles have sold out.
This post was written by Stateside production assistant Catherine Nouhan.