For the love of books: More people reading during the pandemic keeps Grand Forks bookshops busy

Green, a Grand Forks resident and freelance book editor, has a personal affinity for middle and young adult books, the types of books she enjoys editing and writing.

This year she’s read fewer books, but that’s partly because the local libraries have been closed for much of the past year due to the pandemic, and Green often likes to check out books first to see if she likes them before purchasing them. When she is on the lookout to purchase a new title, she goes online or visits one of the bookshops in town.

The problem is, there are few bookstores in Greater Grand Forks and she sometimes has a tough time finding what she is looking for locally.

Still, the local bookstores say they have been keeping busy over the past year as people seem to be reading more during the pandemic.

Green said she’ll sometimes browse Ferguson Books & More! because of the number of titles available – some 100,000 according to store manager Sterling Reed – but from time to time she’ll also visit the UND Bookstore on the University of North Dakota campus.

The UND Bookstore at its peak season has some $3 million worth of inventory, said store director Kevin Flanagan, and sells books and other items, including university apparel, to university students and the public.

Partly because of the few options in town, Flanagan views his bookstore as a much-needed commodity for the community, even if it doesn’t have as many books as Barnes & Noble, the closest of which is in Fargo. (A B&N store formerly was located where the UND Bookstore is now.)

People come into his store seeking entertainment through the written word – anything to escape the humdrum and stress of the pandemic. He also has seen an increase in hardcopy textbook sales, giving a nod that even the younger generation prefers hardcopy books to digital ones.

Flanagan can understand that philosophy.

“At my age I still want to hold that book in my hand,” he said. “With all of the devices these kids have, they still want the hard book, too. I find that refreshing.”

Titles that sell regularly in his store are works by local authors. Before the pandemic was declared, Flanagan would invite authors in for book signings and lectures, but those have been put on hold in recent months. He hopes to host those again in the future.

The book section has shrunk at the store over the months, with more space devoted to apparel and other university items, but people still come in specifically to browse and buy titles. Some shelves are empty now, as the store is in one of its periods where it changes out some of its books. More are on the way.

“It’s a complicated business,” Flanagan said. “It’s books in and books out, and if I’m not selling a book I have to get rid of it because it costs me money to have it sit on my shelf. I really have to look at everything closely. … It’s a tricky business and an expensive business. Books are not cheap.”

Even with their price tag – sometimes $30 or more for a new hardback – print sales were up in 2020 by almost 8% by the end of the year, according to NPD BookScan, which tracks book sales in the U.S. Ebooks and audiobooks, which make up a smaller portion of the market, also saw an increase in sales.

For those looking to purchase books at lower prices, they can find an evolving selection of used copies at the Goodwill Store. Books sold are both in hardcover and softcover, whatever people donate, with book sales contributing about 5% of the store’s sales. To put a number to that, last year the Grand Forks store sold 12,842 books, said regional manager Jodi Hodny. So far this year the store has sold more than 2,500 books and counting.

“Books are not going away,” she said. “People are just finding new ways to purchase them.”

Hodny said she wishes more people would donate books to the store, because “new books are expensive.”

Reed, manager of Ferguson Books, said his store sells mostly used titles, but it also carries some new books by both local and popular authors. The store’s increased sales over the past year make him believe more people are reading during the pandemic.

All genres sell, he said, but some do better than others, depending on the time of year or what is making headlines.

If a customer cannot find a certain title in the store, Reed said his staff will go to great lengths to track it down elsewhere and have it brought it. Flanagan, at the UND Bookstore, said his store will special order titles for customers.

“If you look at the grand scheme nationwide, people say that print sales are pretty bleak,” Reed said. “But I would say here in North Dakota and between all three of our locations, we can see that people are definitely reading.”

Flanagan echoed similar sentiments: “It is true that there has been a lot of disruption in the market, and it slowed down due to COVID-19; freight has slowed. But learning will continue,” he said. “The three areas I see – learning, entertainment, and research – are definitely not slowing down. … I think for the foreseeable future, books are going to continue to be a part of our culture, a necessary resource, no doubt about it. But books are also going to continue to evolve and adapt.”

Green, a lifelong reader who is never too far away from books – her family has thousands of pounds of titles in their home – said while it sometimes is tough for her to find what she is looking for at the local shops, she appreciates what the stores are doing to make books available to the community.

As a backup, there is always online shopping, though for Green there is nothing quite like going into a brick-and-mortar store to pick out her own copies. She only wishes the local stores would get more new titles on their shelves.

“I would much rather buy books in person where I can sit there and flip through the book and hold it and smell it,” she said. “There’s just no substitution for being able to browse the shelves and see what there is, things that you didn’t know you wanted. … It’s nice to be able to buy any book you want on the internet, as long as you know what it is, but there’s still a place for in-person bookstores.”

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2021-03-14 12:17:28

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