By Alice B. McGinty and Alan B. Havis
To go or not to go? That’s what we were wondering as last summer rolled in. We’d planned this tour well before the pandemic hit. Travel to the east coast and visit independent bookstores along the shore to promote our new picture book, The Sea Knows (May 2020, Paula Wiseman Books, written by Alice B. McGinty and Alan B. Havis, illustrated by Stephanie Laberis). We’d line up some events along the way and spend July on a slow crawl up the shoreline. We had identified about 60 bookstores and contacted them about the book and our plans. Then, BAM – you know what happened. Surely things will open up again by July, we thought. May came and went, then June. Still nobody knew what would happen.
When July rolled around, the bookstores were beginning to open, though nobody was doing live events. Should we go? Was it safe? Was it worth our time and money?
Summoning our sense of adventure, we decided to load up Alan’s 2005 PT Cruiser convertible (Petey) with books, bikes, masks, and plenty of courage. We’d sign stock for the bookstores who had the book, and for those who didn’t, we’d introduce ourselves and The Sea Knows with sample copies, bookmarks, and signed bookplates. And hey, if the bookstores didn’t want us there, the ocean would be nearby to offer consolation.
We pulled into Chincoteague, VA, our first bookstore stop, ate a seafood lunch by the bay (we ate all our meals outdoors), and headed to Sundial Books, a lovely little store on Main Street. We were welcomed by Jane and John Richstein, the husband and wife owners, who had ordered the book, had copies, and loved it. Smiles and conversation ensued. We signed the books along with some bookplates for additional copies they were sure they’d order later. We felt that the visit not only bolstered our spirits, but Jane and John’s as well. It had been a long haul through the quarantine, and they seemed energized by our time together. We took photos and a short video to post on our social media to promote their store, and send to them as well.
(Alice with Jane and John, owners of Sundial Books)
On we went, filling each day with stops at 3-4 bookstores, walks on the beach, and plenty of exploration in each town we visited. While we definitely had our moments of fear and uncertainty and troubles with Petey (he’s temperamental and decided mid-trip not to start), we journeyed on, rental car and all, and ended up visiting 51 independent bookstores in 23 days between Chincoteague and Portland, ME. Big bookstores, tiny ones, established ones, and brand-new. It was an epic road trip and we want to share some of what we gleaned.
First, the state of the bookstores: Most had opened to customers between the beginning of June and beginning of July. One was waiting until August to open, and unfortunately a handful were closed permanently.
Many had reduced hours, and most allowed only a limited number of customers in the store at a time. There were hand sanitizing stations and some required gloves. All of them required masks and staff were masked. In every store, we felt safe. After all, these were bookstores, with thinking, thoughtful people!
Then there was the joy. How wonderful it felt to see lines of people waiting to go inside a bookstore. The owners were so excited to have people in again. We saw smiling eyes above masks. There was an air of beginning again, of having survived a tough time. Many of the owners told us that they’d made it through their closures with the support of their communities. We saw how important these bookstores were to their towns – and vice versa. They were the centers of their communities.
We saw how important it was for them to be nimble through their closures, offering curbside pick-up, and doing online orders. Arven Severance, the new owner of The Bookstore of Gloucester, MA (on Cape Ann), found a way to stay relevant and delivered books directly to her customers’ homes.
And speaking of community, we arrived at the adorable storefront of The Little Boho Bookshop in Bayonne, NJ, with no special hopes for our visit, having not heard back from our e-mail communications. However, we were greeted with a huge smile and “I know your book!” from the owner, Sandra Dear. Though she didn’t have the book in stock, she bought a few of our copies, and cleared off a table in the center of her cozy space for us to sign them. She took plenty of pictures and interviewed us while we were there so she could post our story (they sold out of the book within an hour of her posting this, she later messaged us). During the 40 or so minutes we were there, we saw her greet each customer who entered by name, sold one of our books (which we personalized), and even greeted the UPS driver with sincere thank you and a bottled water. We left the store knowing that we’d seen the power of a bookstore as a warm, safe, caring center of a community.
(With gifts given to us at The Little Boho Bookshop)
We loved walking into these welcoming spaces. Truly, they Wowed us. Bethany Beach Books on the boardwalk in Bethany Beach, DE, was a big beautiful store only a few paces from the beach. Inside and out it felt so inviting that beachgoers had no choice but to come in, adding a good book to their beachgoing plans.
The new owner of the Bookshop of Beverly Farms, on Cape Ann, in Massachusetts, had recently revamped the store and made it bright, warm, and as cozy as a home. And this welded alphabet chair at the entrance of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, MA (on Cape Cod), says it all. Wow!
Another thing that these bookstores had in common was passion. The owners were passionate about books and about their communities, and would let nothing hold them back. When we walked into Where the Sidewalk Ends, in Chatham, MA (on Cape Cod), owned by a mother and daughter pair, we could feel the love that they put into their stores. Children’s books had their own annex building, and it was truly a magical space for kids. Books, stuffed animals, beach pails, and more were arranged in a bright, inviting way.
(A display at Where the Sidewalk Ends. The Sea Knows fit right in when Joanne, the owner, placed it there after we’d signed it.)
(Nonesuch Books, Portland, ME)
(Harbor Books, Old Saybrook, CT)
Some of the bookstore owners told us that they missed in-person programming and storytimes. Some were offering virtual storytimes, like the one we did for Book Revue of Huntington, NY, (Long Beach). We visited the huge, impressive store a few days before the virtual event and signed stock so they could offer the signed books to participants. Another bookstore, BookTowne in Manasquan, NJ, even told us that they offered storytimes through their front window, with careful seating arrangements for the kids. It’s a shame the timing hadn’t worked out for us to do this!
As for us, we documented the trip on our social media – posting photos on Facebook, videos on Instagram, and pins on Pinterest, and we kept our editor updated on where we were going and what we were doing.
Was the trip worth the time and effort? Absolutely. The book was picked up by bookstores that didn’t know about it. Many ordered the book from their suppliers on the spot, as we stood in the store. Many more took the copies we’d signed and displayed them prominently, sometimes in the window. More than once, a book sold within 30 seconds of our signing it. As our editor, Sarah Jane Abbott said when we told her how many bookstores we managed to visit, “Wow, 51 bookstores! That’s really incredible. The relationships you established and the awareness you’ve raised for the book will be truly invaluable.”
(Provincetown Books window)
How heartening this trip was, in so many ways, not only to see the bookstores’ enthusiasm for our book, but to see their passion for what they were doing. There’s a lot of good out there. And so many great things happening as stores began to open up again. We were very glad to be part of it!
(Burton’s Books, Greenport, Cape Cod, Massachusetts)