Malaprop’s Books reopened Tuesday under North Carolina’s social-distancing guidelines, but any enthusiasm to return to business life as normal was muted. Only two customers had registered in advance for reopening-day appointments to shop inside the downtown Asheville store.
“There is naturally going to be an amount of nervousness because we haven’t done things like this before,” said Justin Souther, the manager at Malaprop’s.
For now, the store is restricting the number of customers inside at any given time to five. Reservations must be made in advance for one-hour blocks.
“I know I’m somebody who, during all of this time, in my own personal life, has been very reluctant to go into places,” Souther said. “But I think we’re doing it in a way that people will still feel safe.”
Malaprop’s Books and Harvest Records, in West Asheville, are the region’s largest independent retailers focused on books and records. Over the past two-plus months, both have handled online orders with curbside pickup. Malaprop’s tapped four employees to split home deliveries and the store has seen some revenue from audiobook sales. But both stores have only grossed about a quarter of their pre-pandemic business.
Now, with the prospect of reopening, both stores are working out how to keep staff and customers safe in environments where handling merchandise is intrinsic to the shopping experience.
“It’s sort of this hustle we’ve never had to do, because for 15 years, people would come through and flip through themselves, and it’s sort of our responsibility to flip for them, in a way, and show them what we have,” said Mark Capon, the co-founding owner of Harvest Records. “People want records and, despite not being able to browse, they’re going to find a way to get what they want.”
Capon and Souther said the shutdown has forced them to pivot and learn how to do business differently. At Harvest, which hasn’t set a date to welcome the public back inside the store, staff have turned to social media to post lists and photos of new items in stock.
“DMs (direct messages) on Facebook and Instagram, people getting in touch that way, in the past, we’d maybe fall behind in replying to emails and now we have to be so on top of that,” Capon said. “I think we’re going to stick with that because people deserve that.”
In normal times at Malaprop’s, author events were big for sales, and Souther said the spring calendar was loaded with big events. He said the virtual author events that have replaced in-store events haven’t inspired anything close to the same level of sales.
“We’ve gotten really good at being a physical space and being able to interact with people face to face,” Souther said “We’re not especially technology-savvy people, and so we’ve been having to figure out on the fly how to make these videos and livestream events that work and are engaging.”
Capon is gratified by one observation, that many customers over the past two months had rarely if ever visited Harvest before the shutdown.
“It’s been refreshing that there are people that still are gonna support us and maybe even some new people that weren’t doing that before and now they are,” Capon said. “It’s really encouraging and that’s part of my optimism about the future. Maybe when we are able to open again, we’ll have a deeper, more widespread foundation of a customer base that are gonna pay attention to what we’re doing.”
Despite social-distancing standards, gloved and masked staffs and limits on customers capacity, it’s difficult to gauge the public’s current appetite for thumbing through physical records and books. But in this poll of two, there’s unanimity about the longterm outlooks for their stores.
“I’m still 100 percent a believer in the importance of a physical space for physical media. That is the driving force behind what we do,” Capon said. “That is why so many people love coming in here still when they know they can buy things from wherever, the experience of seeing things in front of your eyeballs you wouldn’t normally see and having conversations with people and talking about music. That’s all very important to us.”