Bookstores across the United States have encased their windows in cardboard-hued panels, transforming the typically vibrant displays into stark billboards spelling out the plea: “Don’t box out bookstores.”
The signs went up earlier this week as part of a project launched by the American Booksellers Association (ABA) to raise awareness of the dire straits facing many independent shops. A cohort of six bookstores kicked off the campaign, wrapping the signage around their storefronts in a coordinated sweep. With materials available to download and use in whatever way the individual shops see fit, the #BoxedOut initiative quickly caught on, spreading to hundreds of stores, according to Allison K. Hill, who took the role of chief executive of ABA at the beginning of March.
Hill hopes the visuals will break the “Amazon trance,” as she describes it, stating that some people may not realize the connection between shopping at the online retailer and the consequence it may have on local industries.
“Maybe they love independent bookstores. Maybe they shop there once a year during the holidays or when they happen to be near one,” she said. “But during the rest of their year, they may be shopping online for convenience or just to save money, which obviously we understand, but they haven’t really connected the dots of the impact of those choices on the stores that they love.”
The box-themed installations, designed by the Brooklyn-based agency DCX Growth Accelerator, call to what ABA described as the ubiquitousness of Amazon shipping boxes. Driving home this point, the displays bear phrases such as “If you want Amazon to be the world’s only retailer, keep shopping there” and “Amazon, please leave the dystopia to Orwell.”
On Twitter, Greenlight Bookstore, one of the originators of the displays, took aim at the retail giant. “By the time you’re done reading this tweet, Amazon made another $1.7M,” they wrote. “But shopping indie means more local choice, tax dollars and jobs and a truly unique diverse community.”
The goal of the project, according to ABA and Hill, is to start conversations about the predicaments facing local shops and the role stores play in communities.
“These independent bookstores are really community centers in towns and cities all across the country,” Hill said. “And they’re really vital to the fabric of the community and also to the economies of these communities.”
The campaign arrives as independent bookstores stare down what is shaping up to be a critical holiday season. Despite steady book sales overall (numbers are up for e-books, a July report from NPD BookScan found), the industry faces a dual reality of reduced foot traffic and additional costs related to COVID-19. In July, ABA culled 400 responses to a survey to find that 20% of reporting member stores may not survive after the new year. Since the start of the pandemic, at least one independent bookstore has closed each week, according to the non-profit.
“Dear New York, Please come back to our stores,” McNally Jackson, which also helped launch the campaign, stated on Twitter. “Sales remain down over 50% and we need you to keep this bookselling gig going. We have so many wonderful books and booksellers, all we need is you.”
Beyond raising awareness about the current state of bookstores and the issues contributing to their aches, the project also suggests an immediate way to help: pre-ordering. The campaign signage calls out former President Barack Obama’s upcoming memoir, “The Promised Land,” by name. “Pre-ordering your Obama book from us today helps guarantee that we’ll still be here tomorrow,” reads one of the signs. The first volume hits shelves Nov. 17, two weeks after Election Day and at the start of a holiday season already plagued with printing shortages.
“For these independent bookstores, this book could make the difference whether or not they’re still in business come January,” Hill said. “It’s a big enough title that if they can capture some of that market, it could be a lifesaver. So with that in mind, we’re trying to get the message out that people can pre-order books from independent bookstores just like they can order from other sources.”
“I think one thing that the pandemic has taught all of us is that we sometimes take some things for granted,” Hill said. “And we all want to make sure that the things that we love and that we appreciate survive this crisis and are still there on the other side of it.”
Top Image: McNally Jackson in Manhattan, New York. Photo: American Booksellers Association.