After 20 years in the industry, James Crossley knows what it takes to run an independent bookstore like his own, Madison Books — hard work and a lot of flexibility and willingness to change.
As his store approaches its two-year anniversary in April, which coincides with Indie Bookstore Day, Crossley said he has no regrets about opening his business the year before a pandemic, and he probably would have done it anyway had he known one was coming.
“I would be a terrible salesperson, I think, for anything but books,” Crossley said.
Although running a neighborhood bookstore like Madison Books is never easy, and has become even tougher during the pandemic, independent bookstores have actually experienced a renaissance in the past 10 years, Crossley said. Their numbers have even grown in cities across the country, although nowhere near the numbers they used to have. Crossley attributes this to bookstore owners successfully learning how to navigate a new retail world filled with big box stores and the internet.
“We are a hardy bunch,” he said.
Another reason for the growth of independent bookstores, Crossley said, is a renewed interest from residents in having a place to bring them together, where the owners and staff knew books, and could remember readers’ preferences and make recommendations based on their interests. Those things were not guaranteed at the big chain bookstores.
Another factor, Crossley said, is the internet, which became the great equalizer between independent bookstores and big box stores, because the smaller neighborhood bookstores can carry all the same books the big stores do, even if they’re not onsite. Crossley said he can place an order for a book he doesn’t have in his shop, and it will arrive within a couple of days. Crossley said people can also order books through the store’s website, as well, although many still choose to come to the shop to find out what is knew and what they might like.
When the pandemic hit, Crossley said independent bookstores had to adjust again, which posed an interesting dilemma. After years of work and time independent bookstore owners dedicated to reinforcing the importance and benefits of neighborhood bookstores, suddenly they had to emphasize to people how the bookstores could still serve them through the internet while they could not be together or not in the ways they wanted. For many, in the early pandemic days, the internet was the only medium through which any bookstore could operate, and even now, it still plays an important role, Crossley said.
“It’s not as much fun, but we did it, and people supported us,” he said.
During the pandemic, Crossley said his bookstore has encountered fewer challenges than others, particularly larger ones. In his case, Madison Book’s size has helped it out.
“The smaller the store, the better able we were to make these changes,” Crossley said.
To meet Gov. Jay Inslee’s most recent pandemic restrictions, the bookstore is only allowing one shopping party at a time and limiting visits to 25 minutes.
Considering the store’s pocket book size, Madison Books can’t host a large number of people at one time anyway, Crossley said, adding people looking through the shop’s front window can get a good idea about half of the inventory featured. Plus, visitors have been good about using hand sanitizer, wearing masks and standing 6 feet apart, nor do they mind waiting outside for five or so minutes before coming in.
“You’re not missing out on too much of the experience,” Crossley said.
Madison Books even grew in 2020, despite the shutdowns and restrictions. Crossley said, when the store could not be open, he communicated with people through email and phone call, and he turned to mailing and even delivering books to customers before expanding to curbside pickup and now small shopping parties.
“I wasn’t sure, during the busy holiday season, if you could do enough business with those restrictions in place, but it turns out you can,” Crossley said.
One area that has hurt larger bookstores is the loss of author appearances and readings, Crossley said. Madison Books has never hosted too many to begin with because of the store’s size, but Crossley said, with Zoom and a little ingenuity, he has actually hosted a number of successful virtual events and with well-known authors, too.
While John Grisham wouldn’t make an appearance at Madison Books in person, the author participated virtually in one of the store’s summer series.
“Out in the virtual world, we are just as big as anybody,” Crossley said.
He also said the format of the events changed. Pre-pandemic, authors would come in, sign copies of books, read an excerpt from their books and answer a questions. Crossley said, when he was mulling the idea of how to bring back author appearances through Zoom, he realized he not only could bring them back, he could improve on the format.
Crossley said, through his career, he has built a good network of independent bookstore owners, and he reached out to them to see if they wanted to partner up to host these events. He said, by drawing from his customer base and having the other bookstore owners draw from theirs, they could attract more authors and audiences to the events, resulting in more sales and a continued interest in the bookstores.
The second idea was to partner authors together at these appearances. One popular author event included Iona Whishaw, a historical mystery author from British Columbia who has a large fan base at Madison Books, and Elizabeth George, a Seattle author who writes psychological suspense thrillers.
Another virtual author event featured an author who had written a history on the Hanford nuclear reservation near Richland, Washington. He was paired with another author who wrote a fictional book that featured someone who worked at the Hanford site.
The arrangement was a winner for everyone: More authors got to promote their books, more audiences were reached and perhaps introduced to new authors and the format and conversations generated were more engaging for everyone, Crossley said.
Looking ahead, Crossley said he will keep some of the practices he started during the pandemic in place, such as the Zoom author events. And, just as he had to do this past year, Crossley will continue to adjust as necessary to stay in business, just as he’s always done.
“It’s been 20 years of figuring out new ways to do things as the retail environment has changed moment by moment,” he said.
Madison Books, 4118 E. Madison St., is open from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays. For information, call 206-325-3160, or visit www.madisonbks.com.