April 20, 2020

Hyde Park Bookstores Adapt Amid COVID-19 Uncertainty

The Seminary Co-Op bookstore on Woodlawn Avenue.

The Seminary Co-Op bookstore on Woodlawn Avenue.

Oren Oppenheim / The Chicago Maroon

Usually frequented by students and faculty, Hyde Park’s favorite bookstores have been forced to close their doors to the public as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to plunge many local businesses into uncertainty. 

To maintain cash flows, Hyde Park’s bookstores have shifted their sales to online and sought support from the government and community crowdfunding.

The University announced that it would provide grants to small businesses and rent relief to its tenants. The newly-signed federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security (CARES) Act has also made $376 billion in relief available to small businesses, primarily through loan programs.


Seminary Co-Op & 57th Street Books

The Seminary Co-Op was founded in 1961. In 1983, it opened its second location on 57th Street.

“We have three peaks that get us through the year and they coincide with the beginning of each quarter. Fall and spring are our biggest peaks because they also coincide with our very heavy events season,” Jeff Deutsch, director of the Seminary Co-Op Bookstores, told The Maroon.

“[This quarantine is] hitting us at one of our two busiest times and that, from a cash flow perspective between now and fall, will have a significant impact.”

To maintain cash flows, the Seminary Co-Op and 57th Street Books have ramped up their online sales.

“There’s been a tenfold increase in online sales for the month of March,” Deutsch said.

However, online sales are a relatively small part of revenues.

“Normally that’s about 5 percent of our total sales, now it’s 100 percent of our total sales, so you can do the math on that. Even a tenfold increase is not enough to sustain us long term.” 

The Seminary Co-Op has converted its 12,000-square-foot store space to fulfill these online orders while also maintaining social distancing requirements.

“The front table and other display areas have been converted to be more like storage units. In the past we could only work in the back rooms because we wanted to keep the stacks available for the community. That’s no longer a consideration, so the ability to work is pretty easy for us,” Deutsch said.

Originally, Deutsch had forecasted a 90 percent decline in sales. But with the increased fulfillment capacity at the store, he expects a 60–75 percent drop.

This fall in sales has been met with efforts to cut costs. However, all 45 staff are still employed by the store.

“We have not had to let anyone go or have any lay-offs or hours reductions, which feels like a privilege at this point,” Deutsch said.

Instead, the Seminary Co-Op has cancelled all outstanding publisher orders, which is its biggest expense.

“There are so many amazing books being released right now that we would normally have on the front table or in the stacks and we cancelled all those so we’re going to reduce all those orders significantly. That represents a six-figure dollar amount of books.”

Aside from lowering costs, the Seminary Co-Op also launched a GoFundMe with a $250,000 goal. Much of this goal will go toward paying outstanding publisher fees.

“Because it was such a busy time for us ordering course books, all those bills are going to be due, so we owe quite a bit of money for the spring coursebook season and just regular books that we’re ordering in,” Deutsch explained.

The Co-Op has also applied to the federal government’s Paycheck Protection Program and received a grant from the University.

“The University has been fantastic and has been a great partner in a lot of ways. It’s the landlord for one of our two buildings, and has been incredibly generous,” Deutsch said. “We’re very lucky in having two landlords who are both interested in supporting us and have the means to do so right now with their generosity.”

Deutsch said that working at the bookstore and seeing community support are comforting in the time of the pandemic. “To be around books and other people who care about books and seeing all of the beautiful messages that are coming through from the community is something of an oasis for many of us and a nourishing part of the day,” Deutsch said.


Powell’s Books

Also located on 57th Street, Powell’s Books has specialized in academic books since 1970. Its wholesale division carries over 16,000 titles and sells exclusively to other bookstores.

“The retail part of the store is just closed and obviously we won’t open until the governor tells us otherwise. Our internet store out of our warehouse has been able to continue to operate and we are doing well enough with a skeleton crew,” Bradley Jonas, owner of Powell’s, told The Maroon.

Powell’s wholesale operations make up the bulk of its cash flows, but they have stagnated since the bookstores that buy from Powell’s wholesale have also shut their doors. However, its online sales have grown.

“At the moment, because there are so few places to get books across the country, our internet sales are actually doing fairly well. That’s the way we’re coping at the moment,” Jonas said.

“Our internet sales have gone up about 20–25 percent so we are a little lucky that we are diverse in our income streams.”

However, Jonas’s main concern right now is the safety of his staff.

“We’ve focused on [fulfilling online sales] out of our warehouse, which is 130,000 square feet, so we have plenty of social distancing that we can do,” he said.

Currently, there is a skeleton crew fulfilling the online orders in the warehouse. 

“The rest of the staff have been furloughed and as soon as we can get them back, we want to get them back,” Jonas said.

Unlike many other businesses in Hyde Park, Jonas decided not to start a GoFundMe page. He told The Maroon that he wants to leave that resource to those businesses who need it most, as Powell’s internet sales as well as reduced staff has put it in a relatively stable position.

“It’s this balance between the internet sales and the lower costs based on a skeleton crew. The only reason I am comfortable with that right now is that my crew is being taken care of by unemployment [benefits] in a pretty good way,” he explained.

“Can we ride this out forever? No, it’s not sustainable long-term, but it is sustainable for the next month to month and a half, so we will keep reevaluating as we go. But as I said, the internet sales are up 20–25 percent and that seems to be getting even stronger, so with that plus a skeleton staff I think we can survive for a while.”


Barnes & Noble

The Maroon reached out to the University Bookstore for comment and was issued a statement from Barnes & Noble’s head office.

“On March 24, we made the difficult decision to close our store. While we had originally planned to reopen on April 6, continued developments in the spread of COVID-19 led us to re-evaluate our plans,” a spokesperson told The Maroon.

“The store remains closed at this time, and as a result, a number of our store employees have been placed on furlough. This was not a decision we made lightly. Our hope is that over the next few months we can return to normal operations and staffing.”