A pandemic might be a good time to catch up on your reading, but that doesn't mean it is any kind of boon to local bookstores. Although they generally offer online sales, most local bookstores depend on foot traffic to generate the kinds of sales that put a dent in their rent.
That's why a group of writers, publicists and others has rallied around Bay Area booksellers under the aegis of WeLoveBookstores.org. At least once a week, the group hosts Zoom video conferences with literary guests, and all proceeds go directly to a designated independent bookstore.
#WeLoveBookstores emanated from the Bookstore and Chocolate Crawl events organized by writers and book-lovers Charlie Jane Anders, Maggie Tokuda-Hall and Jackie Risley. The group was organizing its next event when the coronavirus made it clear a May Crawl could not happen.
"Charlie Jane said, 'Let's do this, but make it virtual, and let's see if we can do something that's a benefit for the bookstores," publicist Cristina Deptula recalled.
And so #WeLoveBookstores was born. They kicked off the online series with Michael Chabon and Ayelet Waldman, to benefit Pegasus Books.
"You could tell pretty quickly when the shelter-in-place order came down that bookstores were going to be hard hit," Anders said. "Bookstores have high rents, especially in the Bay Area. They can't change the prices on the products they sell. They are very vulnerable enterprises in the best of times."
On May 8, a fundraiser for Oakland's Marcus Books, the nation's oldest Black bookstore, featured poetry performances by Daveed Diggs, Chinaka Hodge and others. The event netted nearly $10,000, and reportedly coincided with an uptick in contributions to Marcus Books' 60th Anniversary GoFundMe campaign.
In addition to helping booksellers, "We wanted to help boost authors with books coming out around this time who couldn't do events in person," Anders said. Anders appeared with V.E. Schwab and Oakland author Maggie Tokuda-Hall on May 6, in support of Books Inc. Tokuda-Hall's debut novel, The Mermaid, the Witch and the Sea, was recently published, and Anders said, "It worked surprisingly well as a book launch."
Takuda-Hall called it "bittersweet." "I love bookstore events — seeing everyone in person, signing hard copies of the book, the glow that you share with your pals. I missed all of that, deeply. On the other hand, I saw the faces of pals who live far away from me, including the professor who made me interested in writing, and I got to share the stage with V.E. Schwab who was coming all the way from France. So the virtual launch had its own kind of magic."
Next up, science writers Mary Roach and Emily Anthes will appear in conversation with novelist Annalee Newitz to support Moe's Books. Topics of discussion will include Anthes' forthcoming new book, The Great Indoors, about living in cramped spaces and the future of the open office.
"One of the unexpected joys of these events has been the way video conferencing makes the conversations feel more intimate," Newitz said. "I wouldn't trade live events for online events all the time, but there's something refreshing about seeing writers in their own homes, talking casually."
The group also is trying to move beyond the more familiar sites. According to Deptula, "We cover a wide variety of bookstores around the greater Bay Area. It's not just San Francisco and Oakland." There was an event for Richmond's Multicultural Children's Bookstore, and there are upcoming programs supporting Pleasanton's Towne Center Books, Hayward's Books on B and Danville's Rakestraw Books.
As of May 10, Anders estimated that approximately $34,000 had been collected overall, with about $15,000 earmarked for East Bay stores.
#WeLoveBookstores East Bay Centric Video Conferences
May 13: Mary Roach and Emily Anthes for Moe's Books
May 20: Jandy Nelson and Nina LaCour for A Great Good Place for Books
May 29: Gennifer Choldenko, Avi and Aimee Lucido for Towne Center Books
June 5: Jennifer Ackerman/Sy Montgomery/Mary Ellen Hannibal for Books on B in Hayward
June 10: Sarah Gailey and John Scalzi for Dark Carnival in Berkeley
June 17: Armistead Maupin and Alia Volz for Rakestraw Books in Danville
More events throughout the Bay Area are listed at WeLoveBookstores.org