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Wednesday, May 29, 2024

Locally-owned independent bookstores struggle more than ever during the pandemic

The Yorktown Bookshop is just one of a few local independent booksellers that has found itself struggling even more during the pandemic. (WYDaily/Yorktown Bookshop Facebook)
The Yorktown Bookshop is just one of a few local independent booksellers that has found itself struggling even more during the pandemic. (WYDaily/Yorktown Bookshop Facebook)

When customers walk into the Yorktown Bookshop, they’re greeted with the sound of Doo-Wop music and the smell of old pages filled with words.

But more recently, they’re also greeted with a sense of quiet that has entered many retail locations impacted by the pandemic.

Allen Sylvia has loved books for as long as he can remember and after retiring from the Air Force, he decided to spread that love in Yorktown.

But the impacts of the coronavirus pandemic have made it more difficult than ever.

Sylvia bought the Yorktown Bookshop about four years ago as a way to share his immense book collection and connect with others over the love of old books and odd antiques. His friends and other people in the business warned him that opening a bookstore wouldn’t be profitable.

But that didn’t stop Sylvia.

“When I retired from the Air Force, I thought about the bookstores going out of business and I thought about my own huge book collection,” he said. “When I got the store, I wasn’t hoping to make money. I just wanted to break even and do some good.”

Sylvia bought the Yorktown Bookshop because the location had a beautiful view of the water and he said he knew he could turn it into something special. Over the years, he has collected a number of antique books, old typewriters and rare nautical maps.

While Sylvia said he hasn’t ever made a profit on the store, he came close to breaking even last year. He was hoping this year would be the first he might make a little extra cash, but the coronavirus had other plans.

Since the pandemic came to the area in March, Sylvia said he is operating at about 60 percent of his weekly revenue that he had done the previous year. The revenue is slowly increasing as restrictions have lightened, but the bookstore is still suffering and Sylvia predicts he’ll lose at least $10,000 this year.

That loss can be devastating for an independent bookstore.

“It’s different from a big bookstore because it’s not a corporate profit,” Sylvia said. “If I lose $10,000, then that’s $10,000 out of my own pocket and what I can leave for my kids.”

But Sylvia is still determined to provide a literary source to the community. 

When a 5-year-old comes up with a picture book and asks about the price, Sylvia tells them they have a great eye for spotting a book that’s free. When a 14-year-old girl walks into the store in search of a 1945 copy of Wuthering Heights, Sylvia isn’t thinking about the profit. 

Instead he feels proud to find something special for a person that will help continue their love of reading.

In fact, Sylvia has continued certain special sales, such as a sale for redheads on Saturdays that honor his grandchildren, because he wants to continue a legacy of reading in the community and share his love of books.

“It’s just difficult right now, I love books and I love people,” he said. “No one goes into the bookstore business unless they just love books and the people reading them.”

But Sylvia’s bookstore is just one of a few independent booksellers in the area that’s struggling.

Mark Welch, owner of the Comic Cubicle in New Town, said when the pandemic first hit, his store didn’t have any new inventory for more than a month at the end of March, beginning of April.

“The big difficulty is that the printers and distributors were shut down for a month and a half,” Welch said.

He decided to take some time off during that period and cut back on store hours. Eventually the printers reopened, and he was able to get new inventory back in and reopen the store on regular operating hours, but this still does not make up for the damages the pandemic has caused.

“This is a niche business. The collectors are a die-hard sort. They want their books,” Welch said. “But there are more important things during a pandemic.”

Welch has been offering curbside delivery for local customers and mail-out orders to people out of town.

Welch, who has been in the comic industry for 28 years, said his customers have been very understanding with the shipment delays.

“One thing about being in business is that you’ve got to be flexible. If you want to stay in business you’ve got to be able to adapt,” he said.

Welch exemplified that adaptability by offering free comic books as well.

The Comic Cubicle has its annual “Free Comic Book Day,” usually during the first week of May, but the event was cancelled this year. To make up for it the store is having “Free Comic Book Summer.” For every week until Sept. 9, there will be new titles for free, from Power Rangers to Spider-Man.

Welch said by spreading the event out helps with crowd control, and there is a little bit of something for everyone.

“The mindset had to be ‘Anything is better than nothing,’” he said. “Everybody is doing what they need to do to get through this.”

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