Book Sales & Borrowing Soar During Pandemic

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For books, it’s been a banner year. At RJ Julia Booksellers in Madison, they’ve certainly noticed an increased interest from regular and new readers.

“The phones were insanely crazy. We were running up and down the stairs, filling orders, shipping, and curbside pickup,” said Lori Fazio, chief operating officer of RJ Julia Booksellers.

In the beginning months of the pandemic, Fazio says the shop turned into a fulfillment center with books and boxes everywhere. Their online presence grew, and they found themselves getting creative to bring the personal experience to a typically impersonal medium.

“That’s why people come here. They want to know what we’ve been reading, what we recommend specifically for you. And how do we relay that online? How do we do that on the website so that people can get the same experience?” said Fazio.

Fazio says staff also used Facetime and Zoom to give customers virtual tours of the books on the shelves. And when doors opened back up, readers could come inside, continue grabbing orders online, or use the new pickup window. And they did. Sales in 2020 actually increased compared to the previous year.

“I think there was a ‘let me get into that book I always meant to read,’ and then there was, ‘I need to escape and not think about what’s going on,’” said Fazio.

And it’s a book boom seen across the country. Last year was the best-selling year for U.S. print books in the last decade according to the NPD Group. The market research company reported growth in every category when compared to 2019. In 2020, juvenile fiction grew by 18 million sales with adult non-fiction increasing by more than 14 million.

And it’s not just bookstores that noticed the jump.

“Our borrowing in general is way up. We were up 12% this past February from the February before, which is unheard of,” said East Hampton Public Library Director Ellen Paul.

East Hampton Public Library’s digital borrowing has doubled since last year. Paul says they listened and responded to the community’s needs and implemented curbside pickup, moved events online, and got creative.

“We bought 31 early literacy backpacks, and they’re filled with toys and games and books, all around an early literacy theme,” said Paul.

She says those went out like hotcakes. And since reopening their doors, it’s been a steady increase in borrowing, and new members are coming in every day.

“We have made 30 library cards in the last week alone. For a town of 13,000 people, that’s a lot,” said Paul.

Paul says the pandemic forced them to innovate and they learned they could move and change fast.

In addition to books, puzzles have been flying off the shelves. At RJ Julia Booksellers, they were ordering more puzzles almost daily to stay in stock. And a few months ago, East Hampton Public Library bought puzzles to let people borrow them, which has been a huge hit.

Both library and bookstore credit staff for quickly pivoting and making it work. Many of the changes will stick around well after the pandemic, and they hope the increased love and need for books will too.

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