Judith Drinnan has been selling books at the Book Cellar in Yellowknife for 42 years.
For more than four decades, her store has supplied NWT bookworms. She knows the business inside and out: how to navigate the delivery chain, which publishers sell what, and what northern customers will want.
Then the pandemic arrived.
“I think if I had been a new bookseller, I would have given up, right there,” Drinnan laughed.
As with most businesses, Covid-19 presented hurdles for Drinnan and the Book Cellar to clear.
Residents stuck in isolation were hungrier than ever for entertainment, but how would the Book Cellar get to them?
“There was a push for curbside delivery and in the beginning, we weren’t really sure what that would mean,” Drinnan said. “I think that all of us felt, ‘Oh, well how can how different can that be? We’re just going to sell the book online and people come and pick them up.’
“That, as it turns out, isn’t quite how it works, and there’s a huge learning curve.”
Suddenly, the Book Cellar was relying almost solely on its website, which the store had offered for 15 years but which was rarely used.
“Overnight, people had gone online looking for what was available. They discovered we had a web store and then, all of a sudden, we had all these orders online,” Drinnan said.
Fiction and baking are hits
Demand existed, but supply became a challenge.
Major publishing houses in the United States closed their warehouses. Slowly, the Book Cellar’s stock dwindled, and it took longer and longer to order books in.
“Everything became a lot more labour-intensive,” Drinnan said. “People asked a lot more questions or couldn’t understand why there were delays. Sometimes we had to phone up and apologize about stuff. Everything just took a lot longer.”
With plenty of trial and error, the team settled into a routine of processing sales online, putting them together, and leaving them curbside for customers to pick up.
But the pandemic didn’t only change the store’s operations. It changed the types of book northerners wanted to read, too.
Fiction – or “escape-reading,” as Drinnan calls it – became a popular pandemic choice, as did children’s books as school classrooms closed down.
Cooking and baking books flew off the shelves as people had more time to pick up hobbies, while self-help manuals offered reassurance during a difficult time.
Books about the North, however, took a hit, Drinnan said, as it’s a genre primarily driven by the tourism market. With borders closed to those from outside the territory, interest in “coffee table” reads exploring northern phenomena died away.
“Normally, I would be selling 20 or 30 aurora books per week. That’s not happening right now,” Drinnan said.
Ultimately, sales have remained steady throughout the pandemic.
“I’m just very grateful that Yellowknife realized it does have a good resource and we are capable of weathering the storm,” Drinnan said.
“I mean, we’re not doing everything perfectly. Some days, I feel very frustrated that our service is lumpy. It is hard work.
“But we are very thrilled at the response we’ve had from the community, and I hope other independent businesses are feeling the same way.”
This coverage of the NWT’s business sector during the Covid-19 pandemic is sponsored by the NWT’s Department of Industry, Tourism, and Investment. Visit Buy North for more information on businesses near you.