Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

A masked customer browses books at Odyssey Bookstore. Ithaca's independent bookstores are holding on in a business that operates on paper-thin margins.

November 2, 2020

Independent Bookstores Are Struggling Nationally. In Ithaca, They’re Holding On.

Print More

Inside the 200-year-old stone walls of Odyssey Bookstore, “social distancing required” signs dangle above the non-fiction reading room entrance, hang from the fire mantle and are pasted next to stacks of romance novels.

The reminders to spread out and browse pack more words into a word-filled oasis, a bookstore filled with colorful titles, hand-scrawled staff picks notes that poke between book pages and a chalked “please sanitize your hands” reminder that greets customers at the door.   

It’s not exactly what Laura Larson ’85 imagined when she set out to open a bookstore in March. But Larson only knows bookselling with these reminders pasted around her store — she only knows bookselling during a pandemic.   

“We’ve never been open in anything other than COVID. I didn’t know what to expect. I had never been open,” said Larson, the owner of Odyssey Bookstore. “We ended up incorporating being open for COVID with being open at all.”       

The Ithaca native was ready to open Odyssey after a long renovation process (Larson transformed the Green Street stone half-basement into her book hub), but the virus swiftly shut their doors until June. After selling books online for months without a store to welcome in customers, Larson said those who trickled in over the summer were grateful they could gather in a neutral, public space. 

“I think we all craved that ‘I’m stopping by the coffee store and seeing the usual barista,’” Larson said. “That came to a halting grind, and we were one of the first places where people could do that. People just loved that they could come in and just browse and look and be in a space together.” 

Customers browse through Odyssey Bookstore on Oct. 24.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Customers browse through Odyssey Bookstore on Oct. 24.

Larson has seen a full range of community members gather in her store. Odyssey has become a hangout spot for a group of teenagers and a go-to shop for professors searching for copies of The Decameron. She hasn’t seen as many parents with young children, even though Odyssey has a children’s section stuffed with picture books and stuffed bears. (She attributes that to the pandemic.)

But Larson has watched a teenager spend all $100 of her birthday money on books. She has helped customers who have vowed to keep coming back, at a time when the pandemic has pushed independent bookstores across the country to the brink.

“She must’ve been here for an hour and a half, weighing every decision. It was amazing. This is absolutely my happy place,” Larson said. “What I saw were people going, ‘I really want you to survive. I really want you to be here so I need to buy from you. I won’t buy from Amazon. I’m going to order from you.’”

What independent bookstores are for  

Larson opened her store at a time when independent bookstores, like many small businesses, are struggling nationally. Already operating on paper-thin margins, vulnerable bookstores have fought to survive under added expenses such as hand sanitizer and postage stamps, according to Allison K. Hill, the CEO of the American Booksellers Association, a trade association that supports independent bookstores.

More than one independent bookstore has closed each week since the coronavirus crisis started, Hill told The Sun. Their survival depends on where customers put their money — it means shopping local. 

“If you were barely surviving, [the pandemic] was going to take you out. That would’ve been true of me too,” Larson said. “But there’s actually an increase in book sales, and some independent bookstores are actually thriving because people are coming in who weren’t coming in, people are saying, ‘I’m not going to shop on Amazon.’”  

The trade association is urging customers to shop local, asking them to consider that what survives the virus-induced financial fallout depends on their choices. Larson described the amount of work that goes into conforming to the new reality.

“We do curbside pickup. We do everything from we’ll ship you the book to we’ll hand you the book in your car to we’ll hand you the book on our ramp. We’ll meet you where you’re at. You don’t have to come into the store to get a book from us,” Larson said.

But all of the difficulties that come with new safety regulations are worth it to Larson.  

“I opened a bookstore because that conversation, when you share a book and you share this knowledge, it opens up doors to other things you can talk about,” Larson said. “It’s like finding a point of connection. For me, if I wonder, the first thing I do is reach for a book — it’s just how I’m wired. It’s fun for me to watch the rest of the world starting to live in that space.”

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Staff picks dangle from Odyssey Bookstore shelves.

At Odyssey, these conversations take place on the shelves. Larson described a section by checkout called “books in conversation” — books that Larson and her team think that people should be paying attention to that address social issues. 

As foot traffic increased over the summer and anti-racist book sales surged, Larson saw her customers reaching for older titles, such as those by Toni Morrison and James Baldwin. 

But by August, she saw readers eager for something lighter, jumping from Isabel Wilkerson’s Caste to romance novels.

“People are seeing books as a way of entertainment, it’s a way of educating, it’s a way of being part of a conversation — it’s a way of showing up and doing some hard work,” Larson said. “But it’s also a way of taking a breath and doing something else.” 

The constant financial tightrope

Hill said she started as CEO of the trade association in March, just as Odyssey Bookstore was set to open its wooden doors: “You can imagine what my first few months were like,” Hill said, “realizing that my stores were all in crisis.”

So far, though, the Ithaca bookstores aren’t in crisis — at least for now. 

Down the road from Odyssey, Buffalo Street Books is “holding its own” during the pandemic, said Isabella Ogbolumani ’22, a Buffalo Street Books children’s bookseller and event coordinator. 

Online orders sustained the business as the virus forced the store to temporarily close, and the store’s cooperative model of over 800 owners offered community support through it all.

Buffalo Street Books, one of three Ithaca independent bookstores among Odyssey and Autumn Leaves Used Books on the Commons, is operating on a skeleton staff and has shortened their hours to give the store time to sanitize and to fill online orders, Ogbolumani said.  

“Our new website went live right after the pandemic started and we shut down,” Ogbolumani said. “It is sort of what saved the business.”

Still, the store’s survival still relies on customers shopping local — being able to pay all the bills in the independent bookstore business is considered a “win,” she said.

“Independent bookstores already walk a very tight rope and the pandemic is making some of them fall off the rope entirely,” Ogbolumani said. “For others, it’s just us waving our arms trying to keep our balance. The independent bookstore model is unique, but it’s still not unique to just independent bookstores. All small businesses are struggling.”

For Larson, fulfilling her bookstore dreams came at a point in her life when she had a financial cushion and wouldn’t fear operating on a loss, at least at the start. Without it, she would’ve been in a “serious pickle,” forced to sell books to customers online in a business based on the brick-and-mortar community of independent bookselling.

“I was very fortunate to be able to withstand that,” Larson said. “But a business is business, and we work everyday to make it a successful, ongoing entity, and I’m very hopeful that after COVID, things will be a little more fiscally remunerative.”

Where you buy is what survives

For independent bookstores, the smallest decisions make the difference between turning a profit and closing for good. Where customers buy their novels and cookbooks and anti-racist materials is the difference between maintaining gathering spots for hand-written staff book recommendations and leaving bookselling to algorithms. 

“As Amazon gains more and more power, do we really want one company to decide what we read?” Hill said. “At an independent bookstore, you have lots of individuals who are helping recommend books and curating titles and deciding what to buy for the store. It’s not an algorithm. There’s something that’s lost without that.”  

Larson said she has an “ecosystem approach” to running a small business in this town. Shopping at Odyssey means sustaining other small businesses in Ithaca. And she’s trying to stress this idea to her customers.

Books reflect through the Odyssey Bookstore windows.

Hannah Rosenberg / Sun Assistant Photography Editor

Books reflect through the Odyssey Bookstore windows.

According to Larson, 28 percent of independent bookstore revenues recirculate locally, compared to 4 percent when customers shop on Amazon.

“What I think people don’t realize is, the library is funded from sales tax dollars. When you buy a book in my bookstore, you’re also inadvertently supporting the library,” Larson said. “When you buy from any local business, you’re supporting the library. It’s when we can focus on what can you do locally, what is possible locally — that’s where I really like to land.” 

Five months into welcoming customers into the store, handing off novels at curbside and sanitizing pens at the checkout station, Larson said knowing the store would see more foot traffic without public health restrictions is hard to digest, adding that she thinks small businesses have yet to fully endure the financial impact from this crisis. 

But she’s cautiously optimistic she’ll be bookselling in Ithaca for the long run — as the store’s survival, like other small businesses, depends on where the community chooses to shop.

“You do have control over what’s there. It’s a choice. It is about people recognizing that, collectively, they have the wherewithal to support the things they love,” Larson said. “That’s what it takes.”