The Pandemic Book Club--How to get through this cataclysm even halfway calm: Enter a slower world.

 

Opinion 

By Margaret Renkl Contributing Opinion Writer March 30, 2020

-- NASHVILLE — In a recent Facebook post, Tiffany Lauderdale Phillips described taking a call at her bookstore in Franklin, Ind.: “Wild Geese Bookshop, this is Tiffany.”

“Hi, Tiffany. This is Amy Ephron,” a voice replied.

Ms. Ephron is the youngest of a brilliant family of writers, and she lives nowhere near Franklin, Ind. But getting an unexpected call from a faraway literary celebrity wasn’t the point of Ms. Phillips’s post. The point was why Ms. Ephron was calling that tiny bookshop in the nation’s heartland: “She ordered a book, y’all,” Ms. Phillips wrote.

When I was on book tour last fall, I gave a reading that was organized by Wild Geese Bookshop, and I emailed Ms. Phillips to ask what a call like that — and the support of regular customers, too — means to a 500-square-foot bookstore in the middle of a pandemic.

“It’s easy to feel very small and insignificant,” Ms. Phillips wrote. “When people think of us during this time, it makes me feel like maybe bookshops are lighthouses for people and that our warmth can be felt even far away. It made me feel like someone would care if our lights went out. There are great needs in this country right now, so I am honored for this little place to be thought of at all.”

Like all independent bookstores, the Wild Geese Bookshop, named for a poem by Mary Oliver, operates on the slimmest possible margin. The slimmest possible margin in the best possible economy, that is. For bookstores — as for most small businesses — what’s happening to the economy is nothing less than a catastrophe.

In-store events are a bookstore’s greatest chance for surviving in the age of Amazon, but Covid-19 has ended the book-tour season this spring. The crowds — people who customarily buy not only the visiting author’s book but also other books and novelty items that catch their eye while they wait — are all gone now. The passionate readers who regard their local bookshop as a source of comfort and community? They’re gone, too. The gift-buyers, the browsers, the story-time families, the singles hoping to meet a kindred soul? All gone.

It’s a bad time for readers to lose their bookshops. These days people are reading for solace. They are reading for escape. People are reading about other pandemics, real or imagined, as a way to put this one in perspective. “I find myself wanting to plunge into all the horrors of history,” a friend of mine said over Zoom last week. “I want to read about the Black Death and be reminded that the human race has survived so much worse than this.”

What a book offers that I most need myself is a way to slow down. A book doesn’t drag me along at the speed of life — or the speed of breaking news — the way television shows and movies do. A book lets me linger, slowing down or speeding up as I wish, backtracking with the turn of a page. When I pause to ponder the words I’ve just read, my hands and eyes fall still, and the story stops, too.

In talking about books, we habitually use the present tense to describe the story’s action. The novel’s protagonist is happy or afraid. The memoir’s antagonist is furious or deranged. The poem’s speaker is alight with love. Is, is, is, as though the act of reading itself suspends us in an endless present, removed from the consequences of time. As though we ourselves are timeless creatures: young or old or in-between, as the tale requires, no matter how many actual years we carry in our cells.

We have never needed books more than we need them now, and book people are working to get them to us. Authors have moved their book tours online, trying to reach readers through podcasts and virtual-meeting platforms. But for independent bookstores, none of these efforts will matter if readers don’t buy their books locally. Already so many book store employees have been laid off that this spring the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, which helps booksellers in financial distress, received more requests in five days than it did in all of 2019.

Amazon is delaying book shipments to prioritize other items, but shuttered bookstores are nimble enough to respond to this crisis in a variety of ways — including free shipping, door-to-door delivery and curbside pickup, depending on the store and the restrictions on its community. Some shops already offer online sales, and they are perfectly positioned to get books to you quickly. Last weekend Parnassus Books in Nashville posted a Facebook photo of two giant piles of packages, outgoing orders that are helping to make it possible for the store to keep paying its employees even with its doors closed to the public. And Powell’s Books, the legendary store in Portland, Ore., announced that it had rehired more than 100 full-time employees to respond to a surge in online orders.

If you don’t have a nearby independent store, you can find the closest one at Bookshop.org. Bookshop was designed as an alternative to Amazon, offering discounted prices and a way to support independent bookstores at the same time. The site even has a section of recommendations by New York City booksellers laid off during the pandemic.

Buying print books locally is the best way to support both authors and bookshops, but there are other ways to help, as Jonny Diamond, editor in chief of Literary Hub, pointed out in a recent essay: buying audiobooks from Libro.fm, which supports independent bookstores; taking to social media with book recommendations, especially of works by authors whose book tours have been canceled; buying gift certificates to give stores a cash infusion right now, when the doors are closed; starting a virtual book club.

Social media platforms are full of posts by people, even lifelong readers, who say they find it too difficult now to concentrate on anything longer than an article or even a tweet. I feel scattered, too. But during this pandemic, I have found myself falling in love with books all over again, the way it’s possible to discover an entirely unexpected and wonderful aspect of your beloved, even decades after you first fell in love.

As distracted as I am in these darkening days, I have never felt more desperately the need to turn away from screens, the need to slow down and immerse myself not in breaking news but in the timelessness of the printed page.

Margaret Renkl, a contributing opinion writer, is the author of the book “Late Migrations: A Natural History of Love and Loss.”