Coping with Covid-19: Bookseller Insights from BrocheAroe Fabian

Here at Libro.fm, we wanted to hear from booksellers around the country about how they and their bookstores were coping with the effects of the pandemic. For this series, we spoke with BrocheAroe Fabian—one of the booksellers hired by Libro.fm—and the owner of River Dog Book Co. in Portland, Oregon.

Could you give us a brief overview of your career in bookselling?

It’s thanks to Nora Roberts that I own my own bookstore. When I read her Key trilogy in college, about three women who open a bookstore/art gallery/beauty salon, it made me realize that a bookstore was the perfect opportunity for me to combine all of my passions under one roof. Even if people think they’re not readers, literally everything anyone does is in a book. So, it became my dream to ensure that books remained relevant in everyone’s life in some way.

I began working in the book industry in 2006. After working for one museum library, one corporate bookstore, two publishers, and four independent bookstores, I finally opened River Dog Book Co. in 2018! River Dog Book Co. is a nontraditional bookstore, in that it has no permanent physical location. Instead, I partner with community members and organizations to hold author events and pop-up shops, I host virtual bookclubs and events to connect people from all over the world, and I involve River Dog Book Co. in as many community-based and social justice-oriented missions as possible. River Dog’s overall mission is to create community and foster cross-cultural communication and understanding via access to literature and literacy-related events, and I hope to open a bookmobile in the future!

How has the pandemic affected your bookstore?

Pro tip: don’t move your bookstore halfway across the country two months before a pandemic! As a location-independent, independent bookstore, River Dog Book Co. is able to move from community to community, as my wife and I occasionally move for better opportunities for our family. So far, River Dog Book Co. has existed in North Carolina, Wisconsin, and now, Portland, Oregon! In January 2019, we moved from the Midwest to the Pacific Northwest. Paperwork and legalities were finalized in February, and in March, I received my Oregon business license—and then COVID-19 happened. So it’s been a slow start here in Portland, where most people don’t know they have a new bookstore in town!

Luckily, River Dog’s bookstore community throughout the country has been incredibly supportive, and I am slowly reacquainting myself with the Portland business community (I used to live here 5 years ago, so I’m not a complete stranger). But the robust plans I had for pop-ups, boutique curated browsing partnerships, school bookfairs, and local author events are on hold while we all shelter-in-place.

In the meantime, I’ve been revamping my virtual offerings, have launched a local book bundle delivery service (with $5 shipping to anywhere in the U.S., too!), am designing branded merchandise (which will be a new product line for us), and am working on a few local partnerships to thoughtfully position River Dog Book Co. in our new community.

What does your bookstore offer your local community?

Diversity! Not only in book selections and recommendations—though River Dog Book Co. is a bookstore focused on diverse, global, inclusive, and representative books—but also in the range of book engagements! As a mission-based bookstore, I try to be extra thoughtful about the types of programs and partnerships River Dog gets involved with.

For instance, right now I’ve partnered with a local Portland nonprofit called Howard’s Heart, which fulfills wishlist items for teenagers in foster care. In just one month, River Dog Book Co. has had five wishlist items sponsored by members of our community, near and far, for Howard’s Heart teens. We are offering three different preorder campaigns right now; the books are a historical fiction novel about an underrepresented woman in history, a new-release gay male adult romance, and a middle-grade #OwnVoices fantasy novel. We’re continuing to donate books to the Libros Para El Viaje/Refugee Book Drive (in partnership with Denise Chavez and her Casa Camino Real Bookstore in Las Cruces, New Mexico) and the Bahamas KidLit Book Drive (in partnership with Hannah Moushabeck of Quarto Kids and InterLink Publishing). We’ve partnered with Fiction Addiction in South Carolina to be able to offer a virtual author event to our community we wouldn’t have had access to otherwise. And we’re working on relaunching our Armchair Travel Bookclub, where we explore the world through books, and our NEW #ReadWomenLeaders Bookclub, where we read primarily autobiographies and memoirs by women who are leaders in their field (politics, art, science, and nature are the first four fields we’ll be exploring).

So, as you can see, we’re less about just the selling of books, and more about the engagement with their content and the power of connection through literature. That said, River Dog Book Co. delivers River Dog Reads Bundles of books in FREE book industry tote bags throughout Portland, and will ship them anywhere in the country for just $5. I think that’s a pretty fun perk for the local community!

Are there ways in which your community has eased the difficulties brought on by Covid-19?

Absolutely! In a strange way, because most (if not all) independent bookstores are closed to the public these days, our nontraditional model seems less strange to people. So people are more willing to engage—purchase gift cards (which can be used online), participate in our preorder campaigns from all over the country, sponsor Howard’s Heart items for teens in foster care here in Portland even if the sponsoring person lives elsewhere, etc. In a way, COVID-19 has made our community grow closer, because the world feels smaller somehow; we’re all in this together, so what does it matter that River Dog Book Co. doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar to browse or that we are technically based in another state? It’s an exciting time to see our community respond to the innovative solutions we’re coming up with for the challenges of our times.

What’s been helping you to cope, not necessarily as a bookseller, but on a personal level?

Living in our new home. My wife and I completely lucked out in finding the house that we currently rent. It has a fenced-in backyard for our two dogs, we can both work from home in separate rooms, and we have a basement I can use to store River Dog Book Co. inventory and supplies. While we both wish we could get outside and actually go hiking, camping, kayaking, etc. (we’re real outdoor adventure nuts), being able to work outside on our back deck, play with our dogs in the yard, and get our hands in the dirt to do some gardening has had all the intended impacts nature-therapy is supposed to have. When we met, I was living in a tiny house in another country, and she was living in a four-room apartment with the two dogs. This is the largest space we’ve ever lived in as a couple, and it could not have happened at a better time.

Have any great reads been getting you through this?

I’m a sucker for mysteries, nature-based nonfiction, culturally-rich fiction, and romances (which by definition have happy endings).

Olivia Waite’s lesbian romance, The Care and Feeding of Waspish Widows (second in the Feminine Pursuits series), was deliciously satisfying. Zeyn Joukhadar’s The Thirty Names of Night has been luminous and transformative, as his writing always is. Mariana Calderon, a fellow bookseller from Second Star to the Right Books in Denver, loaned me three novellas by Sarah Gailey, all having wonderfully imagined western-based alternate history plots featuring a cast of color with gender and sexuality representation. And Deanna Raybourn is a favorite author, whose newest book in the Veronica Speedwell series (about a lepidopterous historian and a taxidermist who solve murders together) just came out; A Murderous Relation is the latest and I loved it!

What audiobooks are you listening to during this time?

I just finished listening to To Speak for the Trees by Diana Beresford-Kroeger. It was informative and fascinating, and she reads you her own words in this delightful Irish-tinted accent. I’m listening to The Rakess (Society of Sirens, Book #1) by Scarlett Peckham while I work out, and it’s making me actually want to stay on the bike trainer longer, which is a real miracle. I think The Eagle Huntress by Aisholpan Nurgaiv and Liz Welch might be next.

What are your hopes for the bookstore community on the other side of the pandemic?

My hopes are that we continue to be both innovative and adaptive, more quickly than we have before. While I love entering a brick-and-mortar bookstore, I don’t believe one is required to be a bookstore engaged with the community. Thinking outside the traditional retail space box could open up a lot of possibilities for people, especially when the biggest fixed overhead line item for most bookstores is rent. Also, now that almost everyone has been forced online, I would love to see more attractive, streamlined, and integrated technologies for bookstores to sell stock online. And I would love to see bookstores embrace a remote-work or accommodation sensibility so that people with disabilities can more be welcomed into bookstore positions.

These are all things I have personally been—and I know others have as well—pushing for in the industry for a decade at least, and I’ve seen incredible strides in the last 60 days out of necessity. Just imagine where we all could have been today if we had made these strides a decade ago. I love imagining where we could be a decade from now, if we continued moving forward.

What can we do now to help independent bookstores?

It depends on who “we” is. 😉 Publishers can help independent bookstores by offering extended dating throughout the year; better discounts so we have a fighting chance; and by hiring back reps who visit our stores, get to know our individual needs, and work with us to create programs and campaigns that will be win-wins for both of us.

The general public can help independent bookstores by never buying a book from any entity other than an independent bookstore ever again. There’s simply no need for it. Used books, new books, audiobooks, and e-books are all sold through independent bookstores. Why you would ever go anywhere else other than to an independent bookstore—ANY independent bookstore—directly is beyond me.

Libro.fm can continue to be one of our biggest partners, supporters, and advocates. You truly set the gold standard for the way to actively participate in building a healthy book industry/bookselling ecosystem. Keep up the great work, and thank you!

Anything else you’d like to share?

I have never once in my life viewed other independent bookstores or other booksellers as competition. Though I know I’m not alone in that feeling, I also think that’s pretty unique to this industry. The companionship, camaraderie, and general helpfulness I have had the pleasure of experiencing throughout my 14 years in the industry have only served to strengthen that feeling Nora Roberts left in me: that the book industry is my place, bookselling is my passion, and someday I will be able to have my bookmobile and fully realize my River Dog Book Co. dream. In the meantime, I have no doubt the independent bookselling industry will continue to not only survive, but to thrive, as we all lean on and learn from each other.

Kelsey Norris is a writer and former bookseller currently based in DC. She enjoys travel, outdoor activities with her pup, and overcommitting to DIY projects. Find more of her work at www.kelseynorris.com.



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