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A Bookstore in a Time of Pandemic

By Gretchen Thomas

City Lights, Sylva

With numbers trending in the right direction, we thought this was a good time to check in with our friends in the literary ecosystem to hear how they’ve weathered the pandemic so far.

To help us understand the hectic year for bookstore owners, Chris Wilcox, current owner of City Lights Bookstore, agreed to answer some questions. Chris has worked for City Lights since 1997 as a bookseller, becoming the owner in 2010. Before he started his career at City Lights, he was an avid customer since its opening in 1985.

City Lights Bookstore has been a comforting home to bookworms in Jackson County for decades. The store was originally set on Main St. and changed location to E. Jackson St. in 1994.

I (GT) caught up with Chris (CW) recently over e-mail.

GT: Once the pandemic became known, what precautionary measures did you take to keep your store running? Eg: sales to encourage business, cutting staffing, etc.

CW: We canceled all our in-person events beginning in late February, 2020. One of our more medically vulnerable staff members elected to stay home beginning in early March and, by March 20, I made the painful decision to lay off the remainder of the crew.

GT: Once COVID restrictions were enforced, what did it look like to come into City Lights? Eg: facemasks, only ordering online, temporarily closed?

CW: Although the governor’s order exempted bookstores from closure (along with gun dealers and liquor stores!), I opted to lock our doors and moved to curb service and remote ordering only as of March 20.

GT: How long was your store closed?

CW: We remained closed for in-store shopping until May 12, when we reopened with reduced hours and staffing.

GT: Once you reopened, what restrictions did you have for returning customers?

CW: Once we reopened, we strictly enforced proper masking and capped our occupancy at nine shoppers at a time.

GT: If customers were not allowed inside, did you mail out orders/have pickup orders?

CW: During the time, we were closed to in-store browsing. We shipped and delivered books as well as transacting quite a bit of business curbside.

GT: With relaxed restrictions now, do you have the store open to all?

CW: We do. With the CDC’s mid-May announcement, we decided we could not enforce vaccine compliance as well as masking. At that point our frontline crew was fully vaccinated and mentally exhausted after 12 months of policing visitors to our shop.

GT: What other precautions are you taking with the new CDC guidelines?

CW: Our plexiglass barriers and cleaning procedures remain in place. Also, curb service will always be available for folks with mobility issues, etc.

GT: During the pandemic, were you still seeing sales in about the same range as before?

CW: Yes, once we reopened 5/12/20. Despite the cancelation of our biggest annual off-site event (the Cullowhee Native Plant Conference), sales were actually up thanks to a strong slate of regional and political book releases. Other factors included an overall increase in reading plus a renewed commitment to supporting local establishments.

Not only does City Lights sell books, but also journals like these….

GT: What was the biggest struggle for City Lights once COVID hit? How did you overcome that obstacle, if you were able to?

CW: Not being able to allow shoppers to browse our shelves hurt, but that was a transient issue limited to about seven weeks. Having to forego nearly all book events for a year has been a big negative change for our business. We managed to host a very few socially-distanced outdoor author signings, but we were way off our usual pace. We got some traction with Zoom-based book discussions, but never figured out how to make online author events generate sales.

GT: What has been your biggest success during the pandemic?

CW: We were lucky to have some “big books” released last summer. I’m grateful too that our website had long been set up for e-commerce and was ready to shift into high gear when the pandemic hit. Also, we have the best customers!

GT: Do you believe that by operating your store during the pandemic has made you a better business person? Why or why not?

CW: Thanks, Covid, for the crash course in crisis management! I believe I learned a thing or two about quickly making tough decisions, but I don’t think the pandemic made me any better as a manager of people. The smaller size of our current crew has possibly exacerbated my weakness as a trainer and delegator.

GT: What is something that you have learned about your community during the pandemic?

CW: Did I mention? We have the best customers and neighbors! Starting on day-one of the lockdown, folks were in touch by phone, web, DM, etc., asking what they could do to help us survive. It was humbling and gratifying. On the other hand, we discovered that a few of our neighbors take any perceived infringement of their personal liberty as an intolerable afront.

GT: Finally, what is something that you personally have taken away from being a business owner that you believe others should know? Either before, during, or after the pandemic (or not related to the pandemic).

CW: It shouldn’t have taken a pandemic to be reminded of a few fundamentals: be kind to one another AND read more books!

For more about City Lights Bookstore, visit https://www.citylightsnc.com and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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