The story of Bookshop Santa Cruz has been one of survival against daunting circumstances—the Loma Prieta Earthquake, Amazon, big-box stores, the 2008 recession. Bookshop is again in survival mode in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. Owner-operator Casey Coonerty Protti discussed with us how her business is coping.
Casey, you were a child during the 1989 Loma Prieta Earthquake when your parents Neal and Candy Coonerty ran Bookshop. You marshaled the store through the ’08 recession. But you’ve probably never seen anything quite like this.
CASEY COONERTY PROTTI: This is daunting to say the least. Even with the earthquake, we were only closed for about a month before we were able to reopen in the tents. But at this point, there’s a possibility that Bookshop could be closed for several months to the public. It’s an unbelievable situation. But watching my dad go through the earthquake, and watching the community come together to help the store, that’s what allows me to sleep at night—just knowing there’s a history in Santa Cruz of being there for us. So, even in the face of huge odds, we feel we can come out the other side.
How about the health of your staff? Is everyone OK?
Everyone is OK, and that’s our number-one concern. It is so hard to try to keep the store afloat and worry about the health of our staff and the public. But so far, everyone’s healthy. We’re all taking it very seriously. Our staff has proven to be good at improvising and changing and pivoting. So far, so good.
How long has Bookshop been closed?
Our last day of operation was Monday (March 16) and we closed before we got the order to do so. For more than a week, we’ve been able to have our staff working from home. We have a skeletal crew in the story on a daily basis to do web orders and curbside pick-up.
Have you had to lay off or furlough people on your staff [which numbers about 45 people?
We haven’t yet. We made a pledge to our staff to pay them all in full on the pay period that ended last Sunday (March 22). So everybody got their full paycheck. For the upcoming pay period, we have about half of our staff (getting paid). And then we have a number of staff who have other jobs or other family members with means of support, or whatever they might be. So, they’re being incredibly generous and offering to go on furlough. I called every staff member and tried to get a sense of what the store needs and their personal situation.
The last thing I wanted to do was have anybody find themselves in a situation where they couldn’t stay in their house. So I tried to come up with a solution to cover everybody. But we’re taking it week by week. I can’t promise two weeks from now that that will still be the case. It’s incredibly difficult. These are such dedicated booksellers who’ve given everything to the store. We have employees who have been there for 43 years-plus.
Explain a bit about the curbside pick-up program that Bookshop has implemented to provide books to customers during this shutdown.
We’re open 10am to 6pm daily. People can either order online and arrange for pickup, or they can call the store. And we have booksellers ready to help them. And then we ask people, when they arrive on the Front Street side of our store, to give us a call and we’ll have booksellers to come out and hand the books to people through their car window. It’s proving to be pretty popular. People are home-schooling their kids and they need activities. For others, it’s their only venture out for the day.
Amazon is deprioritizing shipping books, toys, and puzzles, and things like that, because they have so many needs to ship groceries and medical supplies. We’ve been waiting for something to affect Amazon, but this is not what we wanted. Right now, bookstores might be the only source to get books to people quick, now that public libraries and school libraries are closed.
To what degree is the revenue generated by your curbside and order service making up for your revenue during normal times?
We’ve just been so grateful to our community. We’ve been getting more web orders than we’ve seen before. For the time being, it’s making up about 40-50% of our daily sales. That will probably decrease over the next several weeks because we’ll be missing spring break, which normally brings in a lot of in-store traffic. And, of course, our events programming, which brings in a lot of revenue for us, has been cancelled for several months. So not having those big events is going to be a huge hit on revenue. But even if it drops down to 30% of our sales, it’s literally the only lifeline we have right now for staying open and being able to pay our staff anything.
We’ve also had companies call us who want to buy gift certificates or care packages to their clients or their employees. We’re trying to set up something where people can donate books for kids who don’t have access to books anymore. We have different ideas for how to keep the revenue streams going, but it all depends on people continuing to order from us.
You have contacts with other independent bookstores across the state and across the country. What are you hearing from them? Is Bookshop worse or better positioned than many others facing the same challenges?
My love goes out to all of them. These are incredible people, and many of them are having a hard time right now. People are in different boats in terms of the state orders. Some bookstores aren’t allowed to have any people in the store for curbside service. Some are not deemed an essential business. My heart just breaks for them, because they’ve had to close completely. Other folks are a week or two behind us and they are just closing their stores for the first time. Booksellers generally don’t operate on very big margins, and they don’t have a lot of reserves in place. But we are scrappy, and we’ve all gone through so many things before that we’re just trying to use our collective wisdom. But it is going to be very very hard for the stores to get through this, unless there’s some kind of financial aid that is provided that is not in the form of loans. It really needs to be in the form of grants, something that recognizes their importance to the cultural life of the United States.
Bookshop is an anchor business in downtown Santa Cruz. Have you had conversations with some of your neighbors? What’s the mood like downtown?
It’s so difficult. Most other retail [stores] have not been deemed essential, so they’re just closed completely. So much of their fate relies upon getting help from their landlords to get through this. I really hope downtown landlords will really step up and give rent abatements to businesses that are closed. It’s impossible to figure out how to pay rent when you’re not open to the public. I think the fate of many, many businesses downtown is going to hang in the balance of how generous those landlords can be.
No one knows what the future holds for this situation. What do you think about when you contemplate the near future?
You know, it’s funny. My dad [Neal Coonerty] is always the eternal optimist. And I think that’s the only reason why Bookshop is still here. I don’t think many people would have gotten through the earthquake the way he did. He just truly believed that he could come out the other side.
I’ve always been the worrier in the family. I’m finding myself in a new place of trying to figure out how to look at the bright side of things. I do think Bookshop will be closed until mid-May. This idea that we’re all going to open on April 7 is not going to be a reality. In order to budget and figure out how to stay afloat, you have to account for the worst case scenario. Then, after that, my big fear is whether we’ll have rolling closures that go beyond the immediate time frame and affects the fall and the holiday season. But, with all that uncertainty, I have no doubt that the Santa Cruz community is out there to support us. And I feel incredibly lucky that they are stepping up for us. They’ve done it before and they’ll do it again. So, I’m hopeful that we’ll find the things that are meaningful to all of us, and find a way to survive together.
Bookshop Santa Cruz is open for online orders by mail or curbside pickup at bookshopsantacruz.com, or by phone at 423-0900 from 10am to 6pm.
Update, March 31, 9pm: This article was updated to correct the phone number for Bookshop.
For continuing in-depth coverage of the new coronavirus and its effects locally, visit goodtimes.sc/category/santa-cruz-news/coronavirus.
To learn about action you can take now, whether you’re seeking assistance or want to find ways of supporting the community, visit goodtimes.sc/santa-cruz-coronavirus-resources.