Tamara Gorin, Western Sky Books
"We had only done sporadic new book orders alongside our carefully curated new books from local, Indigenous, and POC authors. After lockdown, we had to learn the business of new books very quickly as our online orders for new books increased dramatically."
Western Sky Books is an award-winning bookstore and art gallery selling thousands of used titles as well as specially selected new books. The only used bookstore in the TriCities area of Metro Vancouver and the only independent bookstore in Port Coquitlam, BC, they also host events, have a partnership with LibroFM to provide digital audio books, and feature local artists in their gallery space.
We checked in with owner Tamara Gorin to find out how Western Sky Books has adapted during the pandemic, how the store fared over the holiday rush, and how they plan to move forward.
What challenges have you encountered over the past year?
In the beginning, losing one of my staff was tricky because we had come to rely so heavily on her. We were working long hours, teaching ourselves new business tools, working hard on networking between local businesses and other bookstores, keeping up social media, delivering books. We were very tired!
Hosting literary events is a large part of how we interact with the community and support local writers. Losing the events and connection to the local writers and artists was deeply felt. We have some work to do to rebuild and reimagine what events in the store will look like moving forward, but we have two virtual events scheduled in February that our community is looking forward to
We did not qualify for any of the federal small business funding or loans and our landlord did not offer rent abatement or forgiveness, so we had to push through with uncertain cashflow until July at least and then again in October. Those were scary days.
How have you adapted to comply with COVID restrictions?
We use Bookmanager so our webstore was already live with customers using it regularly. With the initial lockdown in March, we immediately started curbside pick-up and delivery two days a week, which we do to this day. We were set up with masks immediately and the entire staff team wears them. I also got us aprons to wear as an extra layer of protection, which can be decorated with book related flash as staff sees fit. We switched our credit card machine from a handheld one to stationary to reduce contact between staff and customers.
We stayed open but we changed to limited hours – we are open 11am-4pm 7 days a week. We experienced no complaints and keep these hours to this day, with customers buying their books at night and picking up the next day or accepting delivery soon after.
We kept the front door and back doors open as long as our property managers allowed us to. We changed how many books we take in at a time for credit and we now leave them for 24-48 hours before we handle them.
Eventually, we did rearrange the store – first in the children’s area to make room for families and to take the pressure off parents to ‘control’ their kids, so they could continue to have a happy and pleasant bookstore experience. By the fall, we were busy enough that we had to close for two days and rearrange the front of the store to provide space for a lineup and make it possible for people to share an aisle while browsing. A bonus of this decision is not only more room ‘on the floor,’ but we were able to create a back room area to handle online orders.
How did your 2020 holiday sales compare to previous years?
We set sales goals in line with our plans pre-COVID. We are in our start up growth period, so it made sense to use those projections. In the end our sales for the end of the last quarter exceeded our planned goal. We even had two days which were ‘best sales’ days!
What successes have you sees?
We are primarily a used bookstore. We have A LOT of books and often bins and boxes of books in our aisles. We had to clean all that up, get book carts made to handle overflow. This was an important commitment to make the store finally accessible, as well as in compliance with the COVID regulations. Customers coming in after months of staying home are very happy and really excited to see that we care about their safety and well-being when they are here and they feel comfortable making us one of their stops on their shopping days.
We had only done sporadic new book orders alongside our carefully curated new books from local, Indigenous, and POC authors. After lockdown, we had to learn the business of new books very quickly as our online orders for new books increased dramatically. We now see new and regular customers ordering new books from front and back list regularly. Seeing sales that are equal to pre-COVD times every morning is super reinforcing and exciting too.
Honestly, we had a week when Indigo reopened when sales declined, but we responded with reinforced excellent customer service and those customers came back. A big thing we hear from customers is that we keep them informed about their orders and explain the situation with shipping or distribution, so they can relax and wait. A lot of people made a conscious effort to give up their Amazon habit and we had to honour that with building relationships and communication.
Our local Downtown BIA worked with all of us to create a shop local buzz which we still benefit from as more customers discover us daily. Participating in giveaways and fun social media campaigns brought together small businesses and our customers alike.
We got so busy we were able to hire two part-time staff using provincial employment programs and we are able to keep them on after the holiday rush, with no seasonal slump layoffs.
What adaptations do you think you'll maintain as a part of your day-to-day business once restrictions are lifted?
The store layout is working very well; customers love it and so do we. Our new way of taking in books for credit is working too, so we will keep that. We were good at universal precautions before so we will just keep at it. And really, none of us got colds or flus this year, so it makes me think we will keep mask wearing an option for staff, keep providing masks for free to customers who might want them, keep social distancing in place, etc. We will continue with delivery as it is a nice option for our customers outside of our immediate community, and it widens our customer base. Having books ready for people to pick up, pre-paid, is also something that just makes sense. We’ll keep looking at the option of extending our hours but that will likely not be done until around holiday season later this year.