I’m writing this from my dining room table in my South City apartment. All across town, the 14 people who make up the staff of Left Bank Books are sitting at their tables, desks, floors and couches running our bookstore in virtual space. Phoebe and Amber are answering the store phone from an app on their cell phones and are dialed into our inventory system by remote control. Randy is dialed in, creating purchase orders for new books. Shane is at his house completing author event requests for our virtual event series. Jim is at his house with his kid finishing graphic design projects he had set aside. Meghara is delivering books all over the city. Kris and I are emailing, calling and Zooming, managing and fretting, deciding and second guessing, ordering books and taking a good long look at the payment schedule.
But the corner of Euclid and McPherson is empty, except for Amanda, our store manager, who is there to pick books off the shelves and get them ready for customers.
Oh, we were safe. While everyone else was opening for browsing, we kept our doors closed and ramped up curbside service, delivery and shipping. We allowed everyone who could work from home to stay there. We all wore masks 100% of the time in the store, practiced social distancing and installed sneeze guards and hand sanitizer stations even though we didn’t have customers yet.
Still, the virus found us. One of our booksellers tested positive over the weekend and we closed so that everyone could be tested. The parking lot at Total Access Urgent Care on Chippewa became an LBB gathering place for a few hours as we all waited outside to be called in and tested.
After my test, I talked to the doctor about what we should do. She looked at me with sympathy (or was that pity?) and said, “The CDC recommends quarantine for 2 weeks after close contact with someone who tests positive. And someone could test positive 2-3 months after they were contagious. So this positive might be current or not. You just don’t know.” She pulled out a handout and gave it to me. “Most businesses don’t do that, though. They just take their chances.”
She described what “close contact” meant, and my business owner brain went into overdrive calculating whether or not people in the store spent 15 minutes or more less than 6 feet apart. I played the odds that someone would forget to sanitize the phone and keyboard they were using. And then I did the math of two weeks with no income if we quarantined.
“When were you around this person?" she asked. “Yesterday.” I said.
“You might not test positive now, and might test positive later after the incubation period.”
If you’ve never known the fear of owing your customers, your vendors, your landlord and your employees with no income, I don’t recommend it.
Anyway, I’ll admit it. I wanted to take what that doctor said and make it an excuse for continuing. I wanted to go to our staff and confidently say we were safe to come back together and sell books. I wanted to rewind two days to where we were considering maybe possibly opening the store for browsing appointments. I wanted the pandemic to be over, for the love of god! I’m over it. Can’t the universe see that we’re trying the best we can? Can’t the virus see that we need to pay our bills? Can’t we just move on?
But science doesn’t make exceptions for those with special cases. My cell phone dinged with incoming texts faster than I could answer them from nervous booksellers – no, not just booksellers. Humans. My cell phone dinged with texts from nervous humans who were scared, humans who have shared the same building with each other for these past 5 months, who are good friends and who need their jobs and also need their health.
To say the private conversations Kris and I had were fraught is the understatement of the century. We are veterans with 64 years of bookselling between us. This is unlike anything either of us have seen before, and it’s testing us.
If we’re going to say we value people over profit, we have to walk the talk even when it’s hard. Even when it’s scary. Even when people will tell us it’s not necessary. So we’re following the CDC guidelines. We had the store professionally disinfected. Everyone in the store has or will be tested. Everyone will test negative before returning (physically) to work. Until we resume, we will all work from home. Those who are scheduled to receive shipments and fulfill orders will work one at a time in the store.
Kris has always said that the best thing about the bookstore is that every day we open the door and every day someone comes in and buys a book, and as long as that’s happening, we’re still in business. That’s rung true for all the 18 years I’ve been there, but today is a new day.
In this unprecedented moment, we have to reimagine our business model on the fly, and we will because a bookstore is not just about a place. It’s not even just about the books. It's about people. Over the years, through every time we’ve reinvented ourselves, the constant was the group of us working together and the customers who support us.
We're quarantining because we want to keep ourselves and our customers safe, but that doesn't mean that we aren't still a bookstore. We're just a bookstore that is being operated all over the city. We have the capacity to sell books from the trunk of a car in Illinois (which Kris and I did on our Mike Matheny whirlwind tour a few years ago), in a packed auditorium, on the sales floor of the bookstore, on the internet through our website, over the phone, in person in a casual conversation in the park. No matter where we are, we are a bookstore.
We’re still here. We’re still selling, shipping and delivering books. We’re still answering the phone and email. You can still order your books just as you have before.
Left Bank Books is more than a group of people coming to work on the corner of Euclid and McPherson. It is messy and hard and wonderful and real. It is real people working together for literacy and justice for all. We hope you, our friends and customers, will still support us.
So I guess I'm asking you this - Will you support us and our decision?
Don't order from Amazon. Order from us instead.
Start shopping for the holidays now.
Buy a gift certificate.
Call and ask us to sell you something you haven't thought of. We'd love to.
Take care and be well,
On behalf of Kris Kleindienst, and the staff of Left Bank Books
Alicia, Amanda, Amber, Cliff, Danielle, Jim, Mark T, Meghara, Phoebe, Randy, Sarah and Shane