Reading in a Pandemic: How Has it Impacted the Community?
Staff at the river’s end bookstore in Oswego. “Through the initial lockdown right up to the present day, our community has responded by taking advantage of our curbside service, home delivery and competitive shipping rates,” said store manager Emil Christmann.

Reading in a Pandemic: How Has it Impacted the Community?

By Tim Nekritz
nekritz@gmail.com

‘With reading books among the reported trends as people spend more time in their homes, how did that impact local booksellers and libraries?’

Interior of Time and Again Books and Tea in Oswego: “With no tourism this year, we continued to be closed because the risk of contracting COVID wasn’t worth the extremely small profits,” owner Deborah Engelke said.
Interior of Time and Again Books and Tea in Oswego: “With no tourism this year, we continued to be closed because the risk of contracting COVID wasn’t worth the extremely small profits,” owner Deborah Engelke said.

The pen, the old saying goes, is mighty than the sword. But is the pen mightier than the pandemic?

With reading books among the reported trends as people spend more time in their homes, how did that impact local booksellers and libraries?

It was somewhat complicated by the initial — necessary — restrictions, but people still found ways to go local in seeking out reading material.

The river’s end bookstore in Oswego was able to maintain service for clients, thanks to a robust web presence that allowed for online ordering followed by touchless delivery or curbside pickup, store manager Emil Christmann said.

Used bookstores Backstreet Books in Fulton and Time and Again Books and Tea in Oswego, however, have remained closed throughout.

Local libraries have adjusted as well, as important community touchstones that provide access to wide audiences.

Christmann said the river’s end bookstore needed to change its operations with the initial shutdown, but credited their customer loyalty for weathering the early part of the pandemic.

“Through the initial lockdown right up to the present day, our community has responded by taking advantage of our curbside service, home delivery and competitive shipping rates,” Christmann said. “Some orders are placed over the phone while many have been submitted through our website, which was due for some fine-tuning anyway. We’re fortunate to have already had it up and running though; fellow booksellers have told us that without a web presence, or even with a fledgling site, it has been difficult to keep up.”

Christmann noted tools like bookshop.org, which launched in early 2020, and BINC have offered some bookstores a lifeline, as have loans and grants made available to businesses.

Changing operations along the way has been necessary.

“We’ve been generally more conservative when ordering products far in advance, yet we simultaneously have to try to predict bestsellers and popular items for the holidays, so it’s an interesting balancing act, to say the least!” he said. “And of course, we are following safety protocols, adjusting when and how everything gets cleaned, before, during and after store hours.”

Warming up

Christmann did note an uptick in reading interest, especially before the warm weather, as “we were delivering quite a few books to people who wanted some new stories to keep them entertained.”

“When it warmed up, people were happy to be out and about again, calling ahead and picking up their books,” he noted. “New and existing reading groups have started hosting their book club meetings virtually. We’ve seen a healthy presence of the SUNY Oswego community. And now that it’s getting cold again, and people are starting to strategize for their holiday shopping, we’re seeing people stock up once more.”

As for what trends the booksellers saw, “jigsaw puzzles, board games and coloring books have certainly enjoyed a bit of a renaissance lately,” Christmann said.

With literature, “I think the mix of genres and topics has remained largely consistent,” he added with new biographies, historical fiction (for escapism) and traditional strong storytellers like Stephen King remaining staple lines.

“I think one of the most significant overarching trends this year has been the current demand for, and subsequent abundance of, titles regarding systemic social injustices in the US — specifically those authored by members of marginalized groups who have the lived experience, and therefore authentic voices, to speak about that which they write,” Christmann said.

“A number of such books continue to dominate regional and national bestseller lists,” he said. “Uncomfortable truths are just that — uncomfortable. But to see so many people actively seeking them out as a means of understanding in hopes of healing is, if nothing else, an encouraging sign, given everything we’ve been through so far.”

‘We are struggling’

Deborah Engelke of Time and Again Books and Tea, said she and her husband Ray are still mulling the future of their bookstore, at least the brick and mortar version.

Engelke said hers is not an unusual case, with some estimates finding more than half of such businesses might not make it.

“We are struggling, no doubt about that. But as we just entered our 20th year, most of our business loans are paid. We are in better shape for this than we would have been earlier in our tenure,” Engelke said.

But since “small brick and mortars often make the majority of their yearly income during the summer tourism season,” the loss of Harborfest, Super Dirt Week, Pumpkinfest and the like has impacted businesses like theirs greatly, she noted.

“With no tourism this year, we continued to be closed because the risk of contracting COVID wasn’t worth the extremely small profits,” Engelke said.

“We do offer curbside, and after four or more months, several of our regular customers are now calling ahead, paying by PayPal, check, cash, and picking up their orders on our deck. This has worked fairly well, but of course, there is no browsing for items that they weren’t aware we had. A large portion of our sales in normal times are people looking for something to do.”

While they do have their inventory posted online at Amazon and EBay, “these sales are very small as we aren’t able to procure inventory for resale,” Engelke noted.

“A lot of our inventory comes from driving up to a hundred miles, for the most part, for huge fundraiser library, school, church sales,” she noted. “We compete with other vendors and select quality merchandise for our shop and our online shops. We haven’t had that opportunity this year. Therefore, we don’t have good stuff to sell online, either.”

Online sales can place brick-and-mortar shops at a disadvantage, as competitors may have less overhead which allows for lower prices, although Time and Again is the kind of operation that can compete through excellent service. But huge online retailers like Amazon that can provide lower-price options and free shipping is hard to compete with on costs alone.

Thus any shift to reading more hasn’t helped their bottom line much, Engelke said.

“Our curbside pick-up customers are folks that know our inventory, but maybe not what we have in stock today,” she said. “They call and leave a message, and we call them back with exact titles, cost of item and a discount we offer for remaining loyal to us through this. The trends are the same as they have always been here: murder mysteries, action, suspense, children’s titles, and one buyer bought a very rare out-of-print title early on in the pandemic the week we closed our door that he’d noticed last time he was browsing.”

Libraries keep serving

Public libraries around the county are finding ways to cope as well. As nonprofits, finding ways for them to continue their mission of serving the community remains paramount — and they rose to the challenge as best they could.

“During June, most of the libraries in Oswego County attempted remote programming and then moved to curbside service,” said Kathleen Mantaro, who is the president of the Oswego Public Library board of trustees and secretary-treasurer for the Oswego County Library Council. “Recently, library by library, our Oswego County libraries have adjusted delivery of services based upon their particular set of circumstances: such as size, staff, budgets, logistics and patron needs as well as continued compliance with the governor’s changing model of COVID-19 requirements.”

One of the libraries that has been able to reopen in the fall, the Fulton Public Library focused on what it could do remotely through summer. They stayed connected by providing virtual programming, from story times to poetry readings to fitness classes four to five times a week; increasing access to electronic materials; giving free access to their WiFi and furnishing 15 WiFi hotspots to patrons for 30-day checkouts; waiving overdue fines and fees; offering free outdoor crafts for families; and establishing grab-and-go options for materials and services like copying, printing and faxing.

“Our Grab-and-Go has been steady since we started it in June and last month [October] we opened up to browsing and computer appointments as well,” said Fulton Public Library Director Caroline Chatterton. “We are so happy to once again have our patrons in the building. Everyone has been very respectful of the new procedures we have in place for visiting the library and we look forward to our next phase of reopening.”

Reading, particularly during the pandemic, has served many purposes, including “comfort, distraction, escape, self-care, mindfulness, education,” Chatterton said, with comfort and self-care perhaps the two most notable.

“With so much uncertainty in the world, there’s great comfort in the predictability and safety of a pastime like reading,” Chatterton noted. “Knowing that no matter what happens, I can sit down at the end of the day with a good book and a hot cup of tea is a great solace for me and, I’m sure, others. Additionally, while we are constantly bombarded with bleak messages and news from the media, reading can be a type of self-care and escape from reality. Too much news consumption can be anxiety-inducing and so many people are finding it necessary for their mental health to turn off the TV or phone and pick up a book.”

While patrons continued to generally stick with the wide variety of genres the library offers, Chatterton said some interesting trends did emerge.

“A good number of patrons found great comfort in formulaic genres like thrillers and mysteries (James Patterson, Lee Child, Louise Penny, etc.) while others took this extra time to branch out and read genres they normally wouldn’t try,” Chatterton said. “Still, others settled into the safety of familiar plots by re-reading tried-and-true favorites and classics. Since reopening in June and resuming the purchasing of new books we can’t keep our bestsellers on the shelves and with the election any political books have been a hot commodity as well.”

The Oswego Public Library had not yet been able to open its doors as of November, but like other libraries around the county and country, they have opened themselves to whatever community needs they can fill. Once allowed to offer curbside service to patron requests this summer, they made this available, mainly for books and videos from their own materials, the 64 libraries in the North Country Library System and additional libraries outside the area.

Oswego’s patrons are huge readers, and found reading a safe activity, a great way to escape, an opportunity to peruse about travel while not able to take a regular vacation, a calming influence in troubled times, a means of self-improvement and a source of entertainment when some other offerings — like new movies and live sports — were curtailed.

In surveying staff, Mantaro found increasing demand for books of a political nature, as well as popular authors and best-selling fiction, cookbooks and books about previous pandemics. Families and children particularly enjoyed their favorite series and topics they started learning since school began again.

Children’s programming for the Oswego Public Library was a big emphasis, as Children’s Program Director Karen Swartz said they were able to run a full remote summer of kids’ programs. These included make and take craft bags, which families picked up and then assembled while connected remotely; a regular online themed story hour (expected to continue through at least December); highlighting such community entities as Man in the Moon Candies, Fort Ontario, the Richardson-Bates House and the Oswego City Police through sharing their stories remotely through the library; and a city-wide scavenger hunt on the theme of fairy tales.

And if a happily ever after in a post-pandemic world may seem far away, at least all those providing access to written words and other materials continue to help Oswego County find as much joy in these chapters as they can.


Tim NekritzTim Nekritz is director of news and media for SUNY Oswego, where he spearheads telling the stories of the campus community.