COVID: The Fragile Beauty of Our Small Businesses

In 1971, when she opened the Book Bin in the main shopping center of Northbrook, IL with her three partners, Sue Warner had no intention of starting an institution.

At age thirty-one, the mother of a five-year-old and a one-year-old, she had two thoughts: One, she was not going to be fulfilled staying at home, and two, the town she was raising her family in should have a bookstore.

Almost fifty years later, the Book Bin is still open in that same shopping center, having now served multiple generations of the town’s residents.

As that one-year-old, I had a front seat to the start of that institution, though my seat was, in reality, a bassinet in the backroom of the store where I was cooed over to a likely unhealthy extreme. Later, when the store expanded to add a dedicated children’s section, I became a kind of human display, gobbling up just about anything I wanted, provided I left it in condition to go back on the shelf and be sold. My mom sold the store my senior year of college, but I still stop by to see it every so often. The shelves the books are displayed on were stained in the garage below my childhood bedroom. If I close my eyes and conjure the memory, I can smell the varnish.

October 13th and 14th is “Amazon Prime Day,” which is apparently so special it merits two days. It is treated like a holiday, meriting feature stories that can feel a lot like infomercials, but it is just a sale, a kickoff to holiday season discounts.

The pandemic has been decidedly kind to Amazon, which has doubled its profit during the pandemic. When people were trapped at home, with local stores closed, Amazon was a lifeline for many.

The pandemic has been much harder on local small businesses. An August survey from the National Federation of Independent Businesses (NFIB) found that one in five small businesses said they would have to close within six months if economic conditions didn’t improve.

A weekly governmental survey finds that the coronavirus pandemic has had a moderate or large negative effect on 77 percent of businesses (45% moderate negative effect, 31% large). This is an improvement over late April, when it was over 90 percent of businesses that had experienced a negative effect.

A Gallup poll on optimism among small business owners has recently ticked up, but remains well below pre-pandemic levels.

Of course it’s not that local businesses have been standing idly by. Independent bookstores are an excellent example of the rapid – and often successful – innovations undertaken to stay viable. Establishing online shopping, curbside pickup, concierge consulting, and even home drop-off has helped. Virtual events with authors and online book clubs have proven popular and will surely endure post-pandemic.

Indeed, Publishers Weekly notes that this has been an era of “unparalleled modernization of independent bookselling,” and interestingly, publishers themselves are doing pretty well, with print sales up almost 3% year-to-year.

Still, City Lit Books in Chicago’s Logan Square neighborhood just last week announced that they would be closing as of December 1st. City Lit was a cultural hub, a place for open mics, for children’s story times, for author events and book clubs. They frequently collaborated with other community organizations, and even were named as one of the places to go in a United Airlines Hemispheres magazine article on “Three Days in Chicago.”

It was a bright and welcoming space, and the place where my older brother realized a lifelong dream of meeting Neil Young when the musician stopped by for a book signing. Just look at that line of people around the block on a typical gorgeous Chicago day:

The venerable Vroman’s Bookstore in Pasadena, California has been in operation for more than 100 years, but on September 28th Vroman’s CEO Joel Sheldon announced via Twitter, “Unless we build our sales…we will have a very difficult time surviving.”

The public responded, flooding the store with online sales. Unfortunately, we cannot hope to rescue small businesses through sudden bursts of sales activities. The pandemic has created an unprecedentedly hostile atmosphere for small businesses, but the danger was present long before the virus. When my mother owned the Book Bin, margins were often tight to the point she barely paid herself, a possibility only because my father was the family breadwinner. She got out before Amazon was on scene.

Thirty years ago, the influx of Walmart into America’s small towns devasted main streets across the country. With the shift to online shopping, primarily driven by Amazon, we may be looking at a similar scenario everywhere, including big cities, and even including retailers that aren’t small at all, like J. Crew, Brooks Brothers, and GNC.

Writing at the New York Times, University of Chicago professor of economics and former adviser to President Obama, Austin Goolsbee warns of a future where big companies “swallow the world.” He’s writing about mergers where large companies buy up smaller competitors resulting in greater concentration and less consumer choice, but the same concept applies to small businesses essentially being swallowed by Amazon.

Part of the solution is for individual consumers to be aware of the threat and consciously decide to support the local businesses they wish to survive, as happened with Vroman’s in Pasadena.

But this is clearly not enough by itself. Stores cannot hustle or innovate their way out of systemic headwinds. Like so many other areas of our lives, COVID-19 has revealed the fragility of our treasured small businesses. PPP loans bought them a little time, and a second stimulus bill, if it happens before it’s too late, may buy them a little more time still.

But, if we want our small local businesses to survive, we need to put them on more solid ground for the long haul. We must think of them as part of the infrastructure of what makes our communities vital. Without our small businesses, our neighborhoods and towns are diminished places, and if these local institutions go extinct, our communities may struggle to bounce back.

Is next-day delivery so great that we’re willing to sacrifice the places that turn our zip codes into our communities?

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