ANDOVER — The country's oldest bookstore has survived many crises since it opened its doors in 1809. However, this year's once-in-a-century pandemic with its increased competition from online retailers might force it to shut its doors.
"That's my greatest worry," said Andover Bookstore owner John Hugo. "The bookstore has been an icon in town. It's been there since 1809. It's been the longest operating bookstore in the country. I'd like to keep it there but it's becoming more and more challenging."
The bookstore, like all other non-essential retailers in the state, shut its doors in March and had to adapt to curbside pickup and delivery until it could reopen in the summer.
However, since opening back up, "sales are way way down," Hugo said. "And in retail, it's all about cash flow. And if there's not a lot coming in, it becomes harder to stock the shelves, and then it becomes harder to sell things because you don't have as many things to sell."
This is a national trend since the start of the pandemic.
Nearly one bookstore a week has closed, according to Dan Cullen, a senior strategy officer for the American Booksellers Association. A July survey of 400 association member stores found that many have seen sharp sales declines compared to 2019, and about 20% of the stores might not survive into 2021, he said.
Hugo has kept his store open because he applied for and received a Payment Protection Program loan, which helped through the summer, he said.
He also raised over $16,000 through GoFundMe donations to help the store get through the pandemic.
One of those donors was a former patron, Nina Barrett. She was reminded of the Andover Bookstore when her own store received a GoFundMe donation from a woman living in a different state.
The donor was a mother who gave to Barrett's store, Bookends & Beginnings in Evanston, Illinois, because when her son was homesick studying at Northwestern University he found comfort in Barrett's shop. It was similar to the comfort Barrett found at the Andover Bookstore in the 1970s when she was a student at Phillips Andover Academy, she said.
"It was my happy place," she said. "It was the place where no one was telling me what to read or giving me a test on what I read."
And the Andover store served as inspiration for her own business when she opened it decades later, she said.
"I think that with bookstores we've all been walking a very fine line for years now," she said. "We didn't want to be perceived as whining about Amazon, so a lot of bookstores have been reluctant to say, 'Look, this isn't a level playing field, there are all these reasons why Amazon is able to sell you cheap books.'"
Buying local also stimulates the local economy, Hugo said.
"If you buy from me then those dollars support the school and the town," he said. "And the person who works for me goes across the street to buy coffee, and that person takes that dollar and goes down the street to a different vendor."
And now is the time to say, "the reason you pay a few dollars more is because on a cold winter night the bookstore is inviting with a warm fire and you can talk to the people who work there who can recommend you a book." Barrett said. "You are paying for a place. You are paying for a place in the downtown of your community that matters."
Although the Andover Bookstore has moved locations since Barrett lived in town, and there is not a working fireplace because the landlord won't allow the store to burn a fire, Andover residents still treasure the shop.
The store's employees "have talked on the phone with my kids, keep us up to date with new releases, do contactless pickup and have even delivered" books, said Elizabeth Liss of Andover.
"Honestly, I don’t know where we would be without them," she said. "I know we are very lucky to be able to buy books and keep the kids entertained and learning by reading off screens while at the same time supporting local businesses."
She added, "It just feels like a small but important action we can take."
Select Board member Alex Vispoli said the bookstore is "an Andover treasure."
After the gas disaster, he remembers walking around downtown Andover with the governor's cabinet, and they were all excited to go into the bookstore. Many purchased books that day, he said.
"It 's an important business, and we want to continue to see it be the oldest bookstore in the country," Vispoli said.
Every year the holiday shopping season is important, but this year especially.
"Christmas makes or breaks the year, and I have to hope people come out," Hugo said.
Hugo used to own four other bookstores nearby and has since closed three and sold his Beverly shop after losing 40% of his revenue during the 2018 holiday season, he said.
Hugo wants to remind customers that his small business and others need locals to continue to shop there if they want those stores to continue to be there.
"I think sometimes with the Andover store we've been there so long that they think, 'Of course they will be there, it's 212 years old.' But that's just not the case," he said. "It's that close to the bone. It's going to be decision time in January or February if people don't come out."