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Slowed mail delivery is the last thing indie bookstores need right now

August 19, 2020, 3:00 PM UTC

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The United States Postal Service is one of the few agencies that almost always receives bipartisan support among Democrats and Republicans. That’s because the independent agency of the executive branch is a service that touches every person in the country, every residence, and every business. And among the businesses at risk during the crisis happening at the USPS are independent bookstores.

Indie bookstores had already been hanging on by a thread for years, facing off (and often losing) against the emergence of big-box bookstores, which in turn have all but perished in the wake of Amazon. Nevertheless, with the support of local communities, many indie bookstores have held on, and others have emerged to cater to marginalized and underserved communities. The number of independent bookstores in the U.S. had actually been on the rise in the past few years, with 1,887 independent bookselling companies running 2,524 stores by the end of 2019, according to Statista.

Then came the COVID-19 pandemic, and the ensuing economic shutdowns have been nothing but devastating for the vast majority of retailers. Although some bookstores around the country have been able to reopen, even to the point of allowing a few customers inside at a time in select areas, many of them are relying heavily on online requests with curbside pickup and delivery by mail to fulfill orders. But when Trump-backed postmaster general Louis DeJoy announced plans on July 24 that would slow mail delivery but save costs (without any further specifics as to how much), catastrophe loomed on all fronts, from the upcoming election to the survival of businesses already struggling to stay open through the pandemic.

Reparations Club is a bookstore, concept shop, and community space in Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Cara Elise Taylor/Reparations Club

“We’re leaning on the Postal Service pretty hard to reach our old and new customers, and it’s been both a blessing and a challenge,” says Jazzi McGilbert, founder of Reparations Club, a bookstore, community space, and concept shop in Los Angeles.

Pre-pandemic, Reparations Club was very much a physical retail experience. “Before the pandemic, we were focused on building relationships with our local community here in Mid-City and South L.A.,” McGilbert explains. “Things were so word-of-mouth—we hadn’t launched an online shop—that shipping requests were rare.”

But in the months since, as Los Angeles has become a hotspot for the virus, and many businesses remain shuttered, the brick-and-mortar shop has been closed, and Reparations Club transitioned its business online for the first time since opening in 2019. The simultaneous events of the pandemic and the social demonstrations supporting Black Lives Matter this summer completely shifted the business, McGilbert says; now 99% of the store’s orders are delivered via USPS. The bookstore is shipping books daily, sometimes hand-delivering locally, and even inviting some regular customers to pick up books from her home directly, McGilbert notes.

But the Postal Service changes implemented at the end of July hit booksellers hard and fast. McGilbert says her store experienced many delays and lost packages, which in turn led to major customer service headaches. McGilbert made the best of the situation, making friends with the crew at her local post office and making adjustments according to their advice.

Jazzi McGilbert, founder of Reparations Club bookstore and community space in Los Angeles.
Courtesy of Daniel Redwood/Reparations Club

“We’ve adjusted our workflow and expectations. That said, we’re hyperaware that many of our new customers are buying from Black-owned bookstores for the very first time. It’s important to us that we put our best foot forward always, and that’s been hard to reconcile with the shipping delays. Unfortunately, Black businesses carry a lot of undue burdens,” McGilbert says. “But by and large, our customers are pretty conscious shoppers—they know we’re not Amazon, and they know what’s up. Those customers have been overwhelmingly understanding of our explanations why we’ll continue to ship via USPS over private carriers.”

Media Mail delivery

Bookstores also benefit thanks to a special classification of mail that is more cost-effective for both booksellers and customers. With pricing starting at $2.80, Media Mail is a cost-effective way to send media and educational materials, such as books, printed music, manuscripts, DVDs, CDs, and more.

“The USPS is vital to our operations, from receiving books from our suppliers to being able to affordably mail orders to customers all over the country. There are even places, like prisons, that can only receive books via USPS,” says Pete Mulvihill, co-owner of San Francisco’s Green Apple Books.

Mulvihill, also a board member of the American Booksellers Association, says it’s been a roller coaster since the famous indie bookstore first closed on March 16. All sales moved online for several months. But Mulvihill says Green Apple saw a huge outpouring of support in March and April, and the store fulfilled orders almost exclusively via USPS Media Mail (and sometimes Priority Mail). “We did a little bit of local delivery ourselves, but it was hard to watch a package going a few miles across town go to Los Angeles for a few days before coming back. But our customers were patient,” Mulvihill says.

In mid-May, Green Apple Books reopened for curbside pickup, but a majority of the company’s sales were still mailed out, either from online or phone orders, almost all via USPS Media Mail. Even with browsing available and doors open 11 hours each day, approximately 20% of its sales are online (up from 1% pre-COVID). “Unlike Amazon, we can’t lose money for decades while growing market share, nor can we afford our own fleet of planes and vans and contractors, so USPS is crucial,” Mulvihill says.

“Shipments slowed down quite a bit throughout the USPS system in March and April for obvious reasons. Those obvious reasons should illustrate how important USPS’s role is in delivering essential goods. Things got better for a bit, then slowed again recently,” Mulvihill explains. “Even Priority Mail—which used to reliably get anywhere within two to three days—was sometimes taking a week. That frustrated our customers, led to more staff work, and doubtlessly cost us orders from folks who would rather get something from Amazon in two days than wait a week to support us.”

The temporarily closed Green Apple Books on Clement Street in the Richmond district of San Francisco on April 15, 2020.
David Paul Morris via Getty Images

Orders fulfilled via USPS constitute a much larger percentage of the business than was the case prior to the pandemic for Jeff Mayersohn, who co-owns the Harvard Book Store in Cambridge, Mass., with his wife, Linda Seamonson. Lately their business has survived primarily on web-based sales and bulk purchases.

“If customers cannot count on us to deliver books in a timely fashion, we fear that they will seek alternatives,” says Mayersohn. “Since total business is down significantly, we cannot afford to lose additional revenue.”

Since the pandemic started, business has been down significantly. In April and May, the only revenue coming in was through Bookshop.org, a third-party service integrated with local bookseller websites for order fulfillments. In early June, the Harvard Book Store was able to start fulfilling its own web orders. Approximately half of the web-based orders are fulfilled through USPS and half via curbside pickup. On the positive side, web sales for the Harvard Book Store have been up between 500% and 700% over the past few months. In July, the Harvard Book Store reopened to walk-in customers with a limited capacity and reduced hours.

“Compounding the problem is that we use USPS’s Media Mail service as a cost-effective method for shipping books. Media Mail receives lower priority handling than First-Class or Priority Mail. We, therefore, would expect Media Mail to be disproportionately affected by disruptions in overall mail service,” Mayersohn explains. “If we had to seek an alternative to USPS Media Mail, our shipping costs would balloon to unacceptable levels. Thus, any disruptions to mail service would have the combined affect of reducing revenue and increasing costs, the combination of which would be catastrophic.”

“Some of the many complications of operating in a pandemic include the additional labor required for monitoring entry into the store, providing curbside pickup, continual sanitizing of the store, and responding to the increased volume of web traffic,” Mayersohn says. “Furthermore, the balance between making sure that we have enough inventory on hand to satisfy customer needs, while carefully watching cash outlays, though always a problem, is exacerbated, given the decline in overall sales.”
Rick Friedman/Corbis via Getty Images

But on Tuesday, Aug. 19 came a sudden reversal, with DeJoy doubling back and suspending the cutbacks to the Postal Service until after the presidential election on Nov. 3 with the expressed intent to avoid the appearance of any impact on election mail. But it was not specified as to whether or not the postmaster general would roll back any of the changes already made to the Postal Service, including the removal of many sorting machines and mailboxes around the country. Those changes still stand to slow down the mail, including the delivery of Media Mail, as many packages of books and disc-based content are typically slim enough to be slipped into mailboxes quite easily with postage printed at home or at work.

“If [this week’s] news is any reassurance, perhaps the Trump administration’s apparent efforts to cripple the USPS have failed. But it still needs support, especially as a crucial election approaches with lots of ballots flowing through USPS,” Mulvihill says.

Mayersohn suggests it might be too soon to judge the effect of the USPS crisis on his own business. “The USPS has been such a reliable service for us that we’ve never had to track speed of delivery in the past,” he explains. “As a result, we don’t have a reliable basis for comparison. We are beginning to hear reports of delays, but this information is anecdotal right now. We will begin to track delivery times to monitor the situation. For the reasons stated above, we view the possibility of disruptions in mail service as an existential threat.”