Bookstore in transition: The Bookloft in Great Barrington

A good independent bookstore is a community treasure. Owner since 2016 of The Bookloft in Great Barrington, Pamela Pescosolido shares an intimate view of a bookstore in transition in the midst of a pandemic.

Editor’s note: In our opinion, a good independent bookstore is a community treasure, and Great Barrington has been lucky to have The Bookloft since Eric Wilska founded it in 1974. Pamela Pescosolido bought it from Eric in 2016 and was in the process of moving it to a newly constructed location when the coronavirus epidemic forced her to close temporarily. We invited Pam to tell us more about the experience of running a bookstore and also about the move.

When I purchased The Bookloft four years ago, I was a neophyte in the world of new books, and publishers, and bookselling. I had sold used and antiquarian books for a while as a part-time gig that covered my car payments, but I was a complete novice to the procedures, narrow margins, staffing concerns, and customer interactions required by a store that sells primarily new books, as The Bookloft does. It was a steep learning curve, but I enjoyed it, and I am fortunate to have an excellent staff (three that remain from before my time, four that I hired myself) who were willing both to teach me and to try new ways of doing things as I tried to put my own “spin” on the way the store operates.

For me, the most important thing was not profit, but community, honesty, and treating staff fairly, financially and ethically. One of my first moves as the new owner was to increase everyone’s hourly wages. I wanted to create a retail workspace where every staff member was equally important to the store, to create a sense of ownership and responsibility where each person is their own manager in their day-to-day tasks. I also wanted to maintain the community feel of the store, where customers would feel valued and well served no matter what. For the most part, I think I’ve succeeded at both these things.

The new sign for the outside of the new store.

About a year ago, I decided not to renew the lease at Barrington Plaza where The Bookloft had always been located. Dr. Susan Thompson’s building at 63 State Road came up for sale, and that seemed the ideal opportunity to create a new space for The Bookloft. Those who have driven through Great Barrington over the past six months will, no doubt, have noticed the progress as we’ve added 1000 square feet to the original building, and if you’ve ever stopped to peek through the windows you’ll have seen how different it is inside!

Construction was slated for completion at the beginning of April. Our lease at the Plaza was ending on April 30. We planned to move the store and be ready to reopen in the last days of April. And then the pandemic occurred.

Moving Day. Books and bookcases get deposited in a still unfinished construction site.

At first we were able to continue accepting web orders and do curbside pickups, with one or two employees going into the store each day to handle orders. I know other bookstores in the state continue to operate in limited ways, but I made the mistake of asking for an exemption, and then I was specifically informed by the governor’s office that bookstores are “non-essential,” and no one would be allowed in the building except for the owner and then only for routine maintenance. So then we couldn’t even fulfill web orders, and had to stop selling completely, except through partner websites such as www.bookshop.org/shop/thebookloft where we get a portion of the sales dollars without having to handle the orders directly ourselves.

In a way, having the economy on pause since mid-March has been a good thing for this building/moving project. We now have plenty of time to make sure the store is exactly as we want it to be before reopening at 63 State Road. We went ahead and moved everything from the old space on April 20. It’s a bit of a jumble but we have time to sort it all out once the final details of construction are completed around it.

The new Romance and Mystery Corner, all set up and waiting for visitors.

On the other hand, we have lost a month and a half of sales revenue since bookstores were deemed non-essential by the State. Like most small businesses, our finances have become a bit of a juggle, but, as of now (it is May 1 as I write this), I think we’ll be ok. I was notified a few days ago that our Payroll Protection Plan application was accepted by the SBA, so my staff will be covered once that grant comes through. We no longer have to pay rent, and the mortgage is only one third what the rent was.

I am trying to plan for what it may be like to reopen after we are allowed to. I wonder how a bookstore — a place where nearly every customer picks up and puts down a multitude of books and other items during the course of browsing — will feel for people suddenly acutely wary of the virus and of other people. I think we will have to require masks or face coverings for all customers, and we will require that hand sanitizer be used upon entering the store.

I have been thinking that at first we may be open by appointment only, allowing maybe 15 customers in each hour so that social distancing can be maintained. If at first we are allowed to only open for curbside pick up, it will be manageable for a time, but a large portion of our normal sales come from people browsing and finding books they didn’t know they wanted. If people cannot come in and browse and discover new things … I don’t know. For that reason I hope we will be able to get back to some semblance of our normal retail operation in the not too distant future. Don’t hold me to this, because of course it depends upon government mandate (as well as final approval by the building inspector!), but I hope we will be able to open for Memorial Day weekend in some capacity.