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I’m sitting in a white wingback chair, set on a rust-and-blue carpet, next to a table covered with the newest in hardcover fiction. I’m sitting in my bookstore, and all’s quiet.
The front door is locked and has been for nine weeks. Today, I’m compiling fall orders from the major publishers on my laptop. I’m a little behind schedule — I opened my bookstore for business on February 3, 2020, and I’ve felt behind schedule on most everything since.
But I wasn’t late to close the doors to foot traffic because of COVID-19. On that, we were right on time.
Mostly, I have things figured out. I leave the lights in the windows off, so people don’t think we’re open and try to come in, but I do change the display often. We sometimes get orders for the puzzles or new books people see as they walk their dogs. I play music throughout the day, which makes me feel less lonely. I tried listening to audiobooks and podcasts early on, but the phone rings often and I hate losing my place in the story. The phone ringing is good. The phone ringing means new orders. New orders mean revenue, and revenue means we can stay open. “Open” as in “still in business.”
In the days leading up to March 13 (the day we locked down), I updated the messaging on our website, our voicemail, and the printout taped to the front door nearly daily. Yes, we’re still open, we kept saying, but with these caveats. And the caveats kept changing. I called other bookstore owner friends and grilled each of them on their plans. Every interaction with a customer was a potential threat to my life and my husband’s life and my kids’ lives. But I needed to keep making money, right?
I kept paying my staff, but I told them to stay home. Alone, I cleaned every surface I could find over and over again.
A sales rep came to sell me some cards and stuck out his hand. “We’re still shaking hands, right?,” he said, and — because of my horrible inability to be rude — I shook his hand. I sat through our meeting thinking only of not touching my face, and when he left, I rushed to the bathroom and turned on the faucet and pumped the soap and lathered.
I can sell you a book on my website, or over the phone, or text, or Instagram. It’s not ideal, but it’s safe.
All along I just wanted someone to tell me more precisely what to do. Which is ironic. I bought this store precisely because I didn’t want a boss anymore — I was so, so tired of bad bosses. But it turns out having the worst of all bosses running the country means I still have a bad boss. There is no escaping bad bosses, it seems.
Gov. Charlie Baker announced his four-phase plan for reopening Massachusetts this week. Now, everybody seems to be talking about “reopening.” When? How? What new training for employees? What new training for customers?
Do I invest in plexiglass to hang in front of the cash register? (You won’t be surprised to learn that expenditure was not a line item in our original budget.) You want to browse in a bookstore, pick up the books, read a few pages. Will a UV wand help clean the books — or will it just expose me to harmful rays?
Sure, some of the guidelines the state has provided are useful, but there's still a lot left up to interpretation. In response to these gray areas, businesses and organizations are jumping in, filling my inbox with checklists and free signage to hang in my store, assuring me they know best. If actual human lives are at stake, I'd really love to hear from some experts. Perhaps some veteran scientists and public health officials. I don't think I should be relying on the checklist from my local office supply store.
So, I’m back to discussing the pros and cons of each decision with my remote co-owner (and brother), but since he’s not here, since he lives in a less-hard-hit state (Maine), he cannot make the call. “You’re in charge,” he says. “You have to interact with all the people all day. It’s up to you.”
The truth is: I don’t want to reopen.
I hope in the last two months, if nothing else, I have gained a little confidence as a new business owner. My hand-shaking days are over.
Are books essential? No, and yes. But I can sell you a book on my website, or over the phone, or text, or Instagram. It’s not ideal, but it’s safe. The store is managing, thankfully. We will continue to ship and deliver and begin to allow for curbside pick-up once the state says we can.
We’ll open when I feel it’s safe to do so. Because I’m the boss now, and I choose people over profit.
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