In a small storefront tucked in the south side of the Western Mall, the REACH a Reader secondhand bookstore has had a small but steady and loyal customer base since it opened in 2015. It’s an important source of income to support REACH Literacy’s mission, but the bookstore hasn’t been as well known as the literacy programs REACH has led in the community since 1986.
In 2020, though, the bookstore has gone from a little sister in the shadows of REACH’s other programming arms to a strong, independent member of the REACH family that the community is turning to as a source of comfort and hope.
And it’s all because of COVID-19.
Here are three lessons the pandemic has taught our little-bookstore-that-could about business, and about Sioux Falls.
1. When one door closes, you can still slide stuff through the mail slot.
Like most other businesses in the area, we closed our doors in March while the world tried to figure out what to do about COVID-19. People were home, people were scared, people were…bored. We had books that could provide some much-needed distraction and entertainment, but it was all behind closed doors.
So, we started mailing books to customers. We put totes of books outside the bookstore for people to come grab at a safe distance. We created book bundles — putting books from the same author, series, or similar topics together — to purchase as a discounted package without having to take time to find them separately. We curated kids' book packages, broken down by age and interest, as quick grab-and-go options.
When people couldn’t come to browse leisurely in our store, we found alternative ways to get them our products so we could keep the lights on.
2. When you don’t know what to do, try doing what you don’t know.
A few weeks into the pandemic’s spread, we learned the next few months wouldn’t just be about survival. It would be about reinvention.
As quarantine, Zoom, and virtual learning became part of our collective daily vocabulary, we weren’t entirely sure how our brick-and-mortar bookstore with a very limited web presence fit into this new way of life.
So, we tried things we’d never done before.
We created an online store so people could still browse our books at their leisure, and have their orders mailed or available for contactless pickup.
Knowing how challenging school had become for both kids and parents, we expanded our children’s book inventory to add hundreds of new books to our online store.
We spiced up our social media presence with storytelling from Library Lady Judy (Judy Abbas, a retired elementary school librarian and book store volunteer) six days a week, and we started regularly posting some of the vintage and fascinating things we find in boxes of donations.
We shifted our annual Harry Potter Birthday Party to a fully virtual experience that can be purchased and accessed for upcoming virtual parties or birthdays, instead of a one-and-done in-person-only event.
And we created fun boxes as a new way to give books as gifts, such as subject-themed or holiday gift boxes.
All of these cross-our-fingers' new ventures have been so successful, we plan to keep them in various ways after the pandemic is long gone. And they’re things we probably never would have tried had we not been forced to reinvent how we connect with our customers and community.
3. It’s going to be okay, even if you don’t know how yet.
This is as much of a life lesson as it is a business lesson. 2020 has thrown us for a loop in as many ways as we could imagine, and some we couldn’t. Had we known a year ago where we’d be now, we would have prepared differently, pivoted online earlier, rethought our outreach. But we didn’t know. No one did.
So, we’re all figuring it out at the same time. And now, well into COVID-19’s impact on our community, we think we’ve learned and adapted enough to know what our small business will look like a year from now.
But we don’t know for sure. What we do know is that we — all of us — are more resilient than we maybe think we are.
We know that surrounding ourselves with smart, passionate, innovative people will always lead us in the right direction.
We know when our community’s needs change, it’s time to change our business strategy, even (or especially) if it’s out of our comfort zone.
We know that no matter how scary or unsure things get, books can always provide a grounding sense of calmness, a portable getaway, a new way of looking at or thinking about things, and the entertainment and information we crave most.
And we know that thanks to the people of the Sioux Empire, their commitment to local businesses, and their continued support of REACH’s mission, we’re going to be okay…and stronger together.
About REACH Literacy
REACH Literacy is a nonprofit that provides literacy instruction and experiences for thousands of adult learners and readers each year in the Sioux Empire through groundbreaking tutoring programs and innovative use of donated boo
ks in its secondhand bookstore, REACH a Reader. Supporting readers of all ages, REACH also provides thousands of books free of charge year-round to local classrooms, schools, and nonprofits. Learn more at reachliteracy.org.