Nova Scotia

As many turn to reading during the pandemic, local bookstores adapt

Local bookstores are delivering by bike, offering curbside pickups and doing everything they can to provide little escapes to their customers.

'Reading, it can be so many things to so many people. It's educational, it's transporting'

Paul MacKay is the manager of the King’s Co-op Bookstore. He has been using his bike to deliver books to customers in Halifax. (Paul MacKay)

With everyone stuck at home due to COVID-19, many people are using the extra time to thumb through the pages of that book they've been meaning to pick up for months.

Maybe it's rereading an all-time favourite, or finally mustering up the courage to tackle a more daunting novel, like the 587,287 words in Leo Tolstoy's War and Peace.

While some people may be using books as an escape, others are drawn to novels that reflect current times — like The Plague by Albert Camus.

"Books are a comfort," said Amy MacIsaac, owner of the Dartmouth Book Exchange. "It takes us places that we can't go right now."

Whatever the book, local bookstores are jumping in to provide in the best ways they can, through curbside pickup, delivery and even staying open while enforcing physical distancing.

Amy MacIsaac is the owner of the Dartmouth Book Exchange. (Amy MacIsaac)

"People have been supporting us in tremendous numbers," said Michael Hamm with Bookmark in Halifax. "So we're quite overwhelmed and very grateful."

When the province first enacted the state of emergency, Bookmark closed the Spring Garden Road store to the public.

Hamm said Bookmark continued to do online and phone orders, but figured the results would be fairly minimal.

While business isn't at the same level it would be normally, Hamm said it has been consistent and that's made a huge difference.

Now, bike deliveries are being offered to people living on the peninsula.

Bookmark employee Erica Flake has been delivering books around the peninsula on her bike during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Michael Hamm)

"You can watch movies and TV programs, but you need a break. You need some variation in how you spend your time," he said.

"Reading, it can be so many things to so many people. It's educational, it's transporting and you can do it on your own."

While most bookstores have taken to the online and delivery model, the Dartmouth Book Exchange has managed to keep its actual doors open, too.

Only three people are allowed in the store at a time and they must remain two metres apart. They are not taking in books for credit until further notice.

Lysol wipes and hand sanitizer are provided at the entrance and at the front counter. Whenever someone comes in or leaves the store, MacIsaac sanitizes the door.

"The whole operating rules are different now than they ever were," she said. "But everybody is appreciative and they understand it's to keep us all safe."

After the libraries closed, MacIsaac said the exchange began fielding calls from people who were now "frantically trying to find books."

People can pay by e-transfers and do curbside pickups, but MacIsaac said they have also made deliveries to people who are quarantined and can't leave their homes.

"Books are, as almost every person who has come through our doors has told us, they feel they are an essential service," she said, chuckling. "Tongue and cheek, of course."

The Dartmouth Book Exchange is one of a few bookstores in the province that still has its physical storefront open, as many locations have now moved online. (Amy MacIsaac)

She said some days have been slow, some have been average, but it hasn't been easy. MacIsaac said she had to let go of her two part-time staff members and now is running the business on her own.

"The days aren't still what they used to be, but they're enough to keep that I can pay the rent, pay the lights and keep the store operating," she said.

"I feel for all the small businesses out there that have been devastated by what's happened. We're just so grateful and thankful to everyone who's kept supporting us."

'We are all struggling'

Not every bookstore has managed to keep operating. Lexicon Books in Lunenburg temporarily closed its doors and stopped doing online orders more than two weeks ago.

Its Facebook page says it could not continue to operate but it hopes to serve the community again in the near future.

"We are all struggling," said Paul MacKay, manager at the King's Co-op Bookstore.

MacKay said the province has excluded retail operations from receiving subsidies right now, but he's hopeful the federal government's wage subsidy will help. 

The King's bookstore is selling books online and MacKay is doing bike deliveries throughout Halifax. He said sales are down, but he's trying to bring a bit of joy through each book he delivers.

When he received a request to deliver a book for someone's birthday, he wrapped it and included a card with the buyer's message.

"We're going to put it in that person's mailbox the day of their birthday," he said. "We're trying to make things special as much as we can for people."

MacKay said he's noticed two kinds of book buyers right now: those who want to get as far away from what's happening in the real world and those who want to dive into pandemics, plagues and apocalyptic novels.

While the storefront is closed to the public, Bookmark on Halifax's Spring Garden Road is still doing online or phone ordering with curbside pickups and deliveries. (Michael Hamm)

Hamm said at Bookmark, he's seen in an interest in books on mindfulness and poetry books to help people relax.

The other thing people are desperate to buy? Puzzles. He said the leftover Christmas stockpile is almost sold out. More are on order.

"We hope we get those soon because people are really enjoying the calmness that comes with a jigsaw puzzle," Hamm said.

MacIsaac said one positive thing for readers is they can give up any guilt they previously had about spending their time squirreled away in a good book.

"Now we can shuck all our other chores because they're going to be there anyhow and you can't leave the house," she said, laughing.

What are bookstore employees reading?

  • Michael Hamm, Bookmark: The Devil in Silver by Victor LaValle. "It's a fast-moving book…With all the inundation of all the news reports and statistics and political squabbling, I think maybe a lot of people are like me, they want to read something that will take them right out of it."
  • Paul MacKay, King's Co-op Bookstore: The Living Mountain: A Celebration of the Cairngorm Mountains of Scotland by Nan Shepherd. "She just takes a walk and kind of describes what she's seeing...It was such a great treat to feel like I was walking through these beautiful Scottish mountains."
  • Amy MacIsaac, Dartmouth Book Exchange: "I can't even focus on a book," she said, laughing. "When I go home at night, all I'm thinking about is how I'm going to get through tomorrow. All the work I've got to do!"

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