Keeping a Business Alive During the Pandemic

, Keeping a Business Alive During the Pandemic, The Local Reporter, The Local Reporter

CORONAVIRUS

By Jamie Fiocco

Driving to my empty store on a Saturday in mid-March, physically hurting from two weeks of manic bookselling, I made the usual 30-minute trip in 20, cruising through an empty college town that should be full of life. As I drove, I tried to prioritize what to worry about. I imagined a flow chart. Health is at the top. Then there is emotional well-being — and don’t forget about money.

How can I satisfy my personal and company debts with no or greatly reduced income? Moving forward, how will I provide for my family and my staff? How does the bookstore stay relevant and connected to our community while our doors are closed?

All the love from our customers, our reps and publishers has allowed me to think about a positive outcome, and the encouraging, productive posts from other booksellers on social media — many going through an even harder time than I am — give me great hope for our industry. I am not a social media regular, but late one night I peeked at the store’s accounts. Despite the long hours, our marketing manager was still posting, and the love and support were pouring in.

This sustains me.

I’m so very grateful for my staff, smart people with can-do attitudes. Today, there are a lot fewer. A staff of 15 became a staff of six two weeks ago. Some folks were not comfortable working with the public, some had a cold (or was it just a cold?) and had to stay away and some did not have the skills we needed as we pivoted to a phone-and-online-only business overnight. The six of us, using Slack like it was oxygen, worked together for 14 hours a day, seven days a week for two weeks straight.

Behind locked doors we were placing orders, washing our hands, fulfilling online and phone orders, receiving, cleaning, shelving, packing shipments, placing curbside orders outside on the “pickup bench” and washing our hands again. Every morning we gathered and identified tasks and made assignments for the day. Every day at the “close of phones” the frantic ringing stopped, and we met again and assessed our emotional and physical states as well as our ideas about how to better the systems we had devised less than 24 hours earlier. We agreed it was good to be busy and not at home.

I’ve been dreaming of showering in hand sanitizer. I also dreamed I was driving my car up a long hill and as I crested it, the engine went dead. I remember thinking, “Do I just roll down to the bottom because I know gravity will get me there anyway? Or do I call for help first so when I hit bottom, I know I have assistance?” I don’t know what I decided — my alarm went off and another day began, but the question stays with me: when, who and how should I ask for help?

Sometimes help just appears. I have a brand new employee. He is one of the bravest people I’ve met. In desperate circumstances he was available to work one day when no one could come in, and he got sucked into the whirlpool with the rest of us. So began his trial by fire. In two weeks he progressed from nervous neophyte to seasoned bookseller. Every morning I’d gratefully exclaim, “Hey, you showed up again!”

My pride in this now improbably close-knit group of people is immeasurable. I get teary-eyed thinking about what we’ve been through together. I know it’s far from over. At the end of one particularly frenzied day, one of us commented how it is nice to work with folks who are absolutely on the same page. Another said that no matter what was handed off, you knew it was going to be taken care of.

I was thinking, I could get used to no events, phones only ringing from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. —practically banker’s hours compared to the usual 9 a.m.–9 p.m. and 350 events a year. Things are going to be different after. But after comes first.

It is Friday at five in the afternoon nearly a week after my silent Saturday drive to the store. The governor’s stay-at-home order will take effect in an hour. We’ve stopped middays as each governmental order has been announced, one day after another hearing we have another day to sell books. Now the governor has spoken — and we are Essential.

We will close out our marathon by deciding to shut down for two days, recharge our batteries, and try to get a couple more folks back on staff. We will post our plans on social media, crack some beers and turn off the lights. We are already becoming something different, but we are still viable. Still essential.

Jamie Fiocco is the owner of Flyleaf Books in Chapel Hill and the board president of the American Booksellers Association. This article first appeared in Publishers Weekly.

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