Days of Covid 19: How Is Everyone Doing?

Manager Georgette Coan surrounded by empty bookcases at Barbara's Hawthorn Mall bookstore.

A few weeks back, our general manager David Schwartz had posted a personal note on our social media platforms, talking about our history in Chicago’s bookselling community, as well as the love of reading that we have, and the challenges ahead for our business- any small business, really- with the pandemic we are facing. In the spirit of David’s letter, I wanted to write up something about what reading means to me, what the pandemic has meant for our staff and store in Vernon Hills, and what your patronage has meant to us in this time of uncertainty.

My love affair with reading began at a young age. In the fourth grade, a classmate of mine noticed that I kept checking out the Nancy Drew series from the library. He was reading his way through the Hardy Boys series. A friendly competition began; who could finish their series first? Sadly, the annoyance known as the project I was doing for the science fair took over my time, and he beat me by a few days. This sort of competition happened through the years, with different friends, bookstore workers, and series. I am proud to report I resisted the popular Twilight and 50 Shades of Lame franchises. I am also proud to report I did not resist the urge to keep reading. Worse yet, I got into the bookselling business. Talk about signing over your paycheck! Reading has been, and continues to be, my balance in this crazy thing called life.

I’ll be with Barbara’s ten years in August. In the twenty years I have worked in the business, a lot of changes (and bookstores) have come and gone. I never thought in my lifetime that my passion and livelihood in books would be threatened by something I had read about in books that scared the hell out of me. But here we are, in the middle of some plot with an end somewhere in sight, but not before enormous changes to the business of bookselling, had to be made. The challenge to our small business is to find a way to keep staff and customers safe, the books to those who need them, and find new and creative ways to make bookselling fresh in a time when our personal customer service is through a phone line, an internet connection, and a mask. When you have to close your doors to your adoring public, when you have to wear masks to talk to your work family, and you take the books out to your curbside clientele and you spend the time admiring each other’s masks, well, it’s a sea change bordering on tsunami.

How does this affect us? How does it not? We take life and its everyday occurrences for granted. I took for granted that I can come into work every day and see my work family and customers as I normally do. The first week we started curbside, I came in and worked with one other person, instead of the usual five. The store, despite having music on, was eerily quiet. You go to put out new books and build displays, and you have no reason to make it look spectacular because no one else sees it. That excitement over the new hot titles coming out? It’s greatly diminished when you can only hand-sell them to yourself and your coworker!

Georgette and co-worker, Nicole, enjoy one last pizza party with staff before the big move. Social distancing observed.

The part of our job where independent bookstores differ from the corporate drones (looking at you, B&N and Shamazon) is that we try to establish an in-person connection to our customers. It’s a whole different sidewalk sale during this current situation. This sidewalk does and will end, and we’ll be back to walking into our bookstores again. In the case of Vernon Hills, ours will be in a new space downstairs in our beautiful Hawthorn Mall. I’ll drop by in a few days and update you more on that…What we try to do for our community is to put those books into your hands, the book that can and may change your life. You’ll never know if you don’t try! We can’t even do that right now, we have to put them into a plastic bag (the devil!) and wear gloves and hand it to someone whose eyes are all you can see.

Everything has changed. Except our goals. Barbara’s staff in Vernon Hills is going to continue to provide you with the best customer service we can, and we remain committed to that. Business as usual, at a time when nothing is. The staff, and I, would like to thank all of the wonderful people who have chosen us for online, home, and curbside delivery, and who have passed the word onto others who weren’t aware that we are still operating. The last six weeks have been hard on everyone, but with all of us working together, we will make it through.

Georgette Coan is the manager of Barbara's Bookstore at Hawthorn Mall in Vernon Hills, IL. She began working for Barbara's in 2010 and was the manager at Barbara's in Burr Ridge, IL. Georgette believes that people still buy paper books because they long for the feel of a physical volume in their hands, actual books on their bookshelves at home, a way to have an actual library (you can't wrap an E-reader!) to pass onto their families. "Books harken back to a more nostalgic era. This new technology isn't for everyone; physical copies of books still offer another choice to those who don't care for the newfangled technology known as E-books and E-readers."