Bookstores thrived as gathering places, but the virus has made Wine Country owners embrace online

Twice Told Books owner Rachel Mutterperl has learned to rewrite her business plan as she's endured the many challenges that come with running an independent shop in Guerneville.

After enduring two floods, a horrendous wildfire in 2018 and now a global pandemic, her gnawing question remained: "What next - locusts?"

“No one goes into this to make a killing, or even making a living is questionable. And with Covid-19, it feels like a continuation of disasters. The important thing to have is to be a problem solver. I took ownership of this (store) with a big plan,” said Mutterperl, a veteran book dealer.

Only late last year, it appeared her innovative spirit was paying off. The end-of-2019 holiday season resulted in a monumental jump in sales of 25% in comparison to the previous year.

Now, the prolonged coronavirus outbreak's closure of all businesses nonessential has produced a huge cause for concern, not just for her, but for many North Bay independent bookstore owners who are turning to the internet, order pickups outside the store, nearby curbside delivery and cooperative deals with other industry sites to survive.

“We weren't worried (before) about being able to keep our doors open. I'm worried now, absolutely, 100%. I don't know if we'll be able to keep this going,” Mutterperl said.

Undaunted with challenges

Independent bookstores have always had it hard ever since Amazon moved into online bookselling in a big way.

From northern Sonoma County to southern Marin, bookstores that run on an owner's shoestring budget played to their communities, hosting gatherings in which authors signed and read excerpts from their books. Customers meandered through the store in a natural hunter-and-gatherer mode before and after these events.

But the coronavirus crisis has changed that, even to the point of forcing these sellers to shift Independent Bookstore Day from April 25 to Aug. 29

Bookstores all over are now more aggressively taking a page out of the Amazon playbook by conducting more business on the Internet.

Mutterperl has created a page on, an online publishing shopper guide dedicated to supporting local, independent bookstores. Bookshop's affiliate program pays 10% commission on every sale.

Sonoma-based California Independent Booksellers Alliance, founded in 1981, is a chapter of the American Bookseller's Association and boasts 325 shops in its membership. It supports a partnership with, a consortium that provides more industry assistance.

Association spokesman Dan Cullen said sales are growing to record levels, specifically from a boost in creative virtual customer events. There are Instagram Live storytimes for kids, Zoom debut author interviews and Facebook Live book group meetings to help fill the empty space of the brick-and-mortar store's loss of community gatherings.

“The outbreak of COVID-19 has resulted in the biggest economic crisis since the Great Depression, and independent bookstores have had to rapidly innovate and re-engineer their businesses,” he said.

A new way to gather

Book Passage bookshop owner Elaine Petrocelli wrote the book on community gatherings. Through literary lunches, book clubs and social meetups, her two stores in Corte Madera and the Ferry Building in San Francisco had averaged about 1,000 gatherings a year.

Now she's turned to the virtual world. She's also relying on her wholesale distribution system to fulfill orders instead of physically pulling books off the shelves. The internet is dominating the scene.

Once in a while, she shows up at the store to fill in loose ends.

“I can hear the voice of my customers (in my head). It's strange how quiet it is,” she said.

But in all that peace and serenity, she's receiving support from the community.

Local author Anne Lamott spearheaded a GoFundMe crowdfunding effort in support of Book Passage.

“The response has been generous and the messages heartwarming,” the bookshop owner said.

Supporting the community

Sausalito Books By the Bay owner Cheryl Popp decided to do local deliveries in town, “which people love,” she noted.

“We're not generating a lot of income, but we're generating a lot of goodwill,” she said.

Popp has combined the nearby delivery-concession with curbside pickup at the store, to entice more orders mainly processed through her website, phone requests and email inquiries.

Although she's working about every day, Popp has been forced to cut back on her staff of six people. She's down to a few employees, who, while deferring their paychecks, rotate order-processing duties. Gloved- and masked up and disinfected, the volunteers leave the orders on the porch.

“We are feeling the pinch - doing a fraction of the business we did before,” said Popp, who also sells gift items such as jigsaw puzzles, which have become a craze for stay-at-home families these days.

Popp, who's lived in Sausalito for three decades, believes her community is committed to keeping the bookstore going, if anything, out of a sense of pride in having one in town.

To tap into that community dedication, Popp started a loyalty program that gives members who sign up for at least $150 access to many discounts and perks.

The creative book dealer misses the community events that make operating a local bookstore so special. To alleviate some of the loss, she has opted to partner with the local library to stage a videoconferencing event that would essentially provide suggestions on what “Cheryl recommends reading,” while the public practices social distancing.

“What better time to read books than a shelter-in place?” she asked.

An effective use of resources

At Readers' Books in downtown Sonoma, manager Thea Reynolds is using her back patio as a quasi distribution center. Her staff of five takes orders placed through the website and email address, puts the books in bags and places them on the patio table.

Her staff is called on every day, also divvying up the 10 a.m.-to-2 p.m. time slots.

“To some extent, we need to be here and get the deliveries out,” said Reynolds, who like Popp, deeply misses the press-the-flesh human contact with her customers. She's had to cancel all her authors' events, which tied up the calendar about once or twice a week.

Farther north, Four-eyed Frog Books General Manager Joel Crockett summed up today's harsh reality with, saying: “The store closing is a definite loss. The thing I miss personally is interacting with my customers.”

Crockett has also tried to ride out turbulent times and challenges.

He lost his first wife in a car crash in 2012. Then, he was unable to sustain the energy to run it on his own, a hardship that led to his departure from the bookstore in Gualala.

He returned to the area with his second wife in 2016. In two years, he signed onto a plan that brought 24 investors into the Mendocino County shop. Things were looking up.

“Our increase in sales since I've returned to the store in November 2018 was and is a result of teamwork. That's how important this bookstore is to the community,” Crockett said. “Without (the investors') help and the input of a couple of volunteers and our few employees, the store wouldn't be here today.”

Now, Crockett wonders again what the future holds in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Enduring the plight

Naomi Chamblin closed two of her Bookmine shops, in St. Helena and Napa's Oxbow Public Market, on March 16 and kept the downtown Pearl Street store in Napa open until March 21.

Her staff has been reduced, despite staying busy with the success of using social media and an enhanced website to get the word out. Otherwise, “there was a little too much contact” between her workers and the public, Chamblin insisted.

She elected to run a special Easter campaign with scaled-down operations because her inventory was built up. If the crisis is prolonged and all events are canceled, the future of the bookstores may become uncertain.

“It's going to be painful - the loss of gathering and the loss of revenue,” she said.

Nonetheless, state booksellers alliance Executive Director Calvin Crosby is hopeful these enterprising small business owners will weather this storm.

“Zoom has become the new normal. We're talking to one another more than ever before. Unfortunately, it's harder to get that fixed margin,” Crosby said, referencing a bookstore's budget. “That said, we always adapt.”

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