For independent bookstores, the pandemic has been the start of a new chapter

Independent bookstores have been among the few economic success stories of the COVID-19 pandemic. Booksellers in Ottawa weigh in on the surprise plot twist — and reveal their top sellers.

Book sales booming as customers seek escape, edification from a local source

With libraries closed and not much else to do, books were flying off the shelves at Singing Pebble Books in Ottawa, owner Mika Weaver says. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

Just before the COVID-19 pandemic struck, Mika Weaver ordered more than 300 puzzles for her Ottawa bookstore. Then all non-essential businesses were shut down.

"I was up at night thinking, 'How am I going to pay for all those puzzles that came in?'" said Weaver, the owner of Singing Pebble Books on Main Street.

As it turns out, bookstores have been among the few economic success stories of the pandemic. Weaver sold 383 puzzles in six weeks, then ordered more. She was working seven days a week — and she's not alone.

"All of a sudden we were hiring people and trying to keep up," said Jim Sherman of Perfect Books on Elgin Street in Ottawa, whose business quickly pivoted to selling books online and offering to deliver them.

"We went from zero to I don't know what within a week."

With public libraries closed and people stuck indoors, it appears that many caught the reading bug during the pandemic.

The manager of Books on Beechwood said that when the lockdown began in March, she had plans to build shelves for her store and get through a mound of paperwork.

Hilary Porter is manager of Books on Beechwood. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

"Of course, none of that happened," Hilary Porter said. She believes the online store "kind of exploded" because people were desperate to get lost in a good book.

"I think it was just the comfort of holding a paper book in your hand and being able to disappear into a different world for a while, when the one you actually live in is going a little haywire."

Other booksellers found the opposite: Their customers wanted to learn more about the world around them, particularly about the Black Lives Matter movement.

"I think people had more time on their hands ... and were really interested in the issues of the day and had time to delve into them deeply," Sherman said.

Several business owners said among their top sellers this year were books about anti-Black racism.

Octopus Books in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood issued a plea to its customers at the beginning of the pandemic, warning it was on the verge of going bankrupt. In response, the orders flooded in — especially after the store offered a discount on books about racism.

"We had over 1,000 orders for thousands of books," store owner Lisa Greaves said. "All of a sudden we went from having no business to being totally overwhelmed by business."

Greaves said online orders have grown from two per cent of her store's business to 75 per cent, with requests for books coming in from across the city from people who want to support an independent bookstore. She said she hopes the online trend will continue to bolster her business during a provincial lockdown in January.

A staff member at Octopus Books in Ottawa's Glebe neighbourhood stocks the shelves. (Francis Ferland/CBC)

For Mika Weaver, the most gratifying effect of the pandemic has been a renewed determination among her customers to shop local.

"It's like a dream come true. My neighbours that I see at the dog park ... they come into the store," Weaver said. "We've become much more of a community bookstore, even though we've been here for 32 years."

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