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Durham book lovers find no place to browse

Suddenly book browsing has become a hazardous pastime. Durham’s libraries and bookstores have closed their doors, so book lovers have no place to wander through the stacks or pluck an interesting-looking tome off a shelf. 

The Regulator Bookshop, Letters Bookshop and Golden Fig Books have closed their doors. The libraries are open for takeout only. These are challenging times if you want to read the first page of a novel before you buy or check it out. 

The Regulator’s website explains the hesitation: “Rather than setting any date and possibly raising false expectations we will withhold any announcement until we have a firm date.” 

It’s the same for the other stores, which haven’t set a date to reopen. Until they do, the book browsing experience will, like so many things we have come to know, be done through a screen. For now, the smell of freshly printed pages and the satisfying sensation of flipping through a paperback won’t occur until the box arrives by UPS – or you pick it up curbside. 

Golden Fig owner David Bradley, says they’ve been “overwhelmed by the outpouring of support we’ve seen from the community” as they ship books throughout Durham and operate a curbside pick-up service. 

Durham libraries closed their indoor spaces to the public in response to county stay-at-home ordinance, but residents now have two ways to get new books. They can get ebooks through a newly expanded online program, or actual books through a new pick-up service.

Last week the libraries launched a “Take-Out!” book station at every location, a curbside pick-up service much like a restaurant. Book lovers can just order ahead and swing by when the books are ready. 

This virtual inventory has been well received by parents adapting to home schooling, with an increase in kids ebooks and e-audio of 88% from February to March and 55% from March to April . 

For physical materials that had been in limbo since the stay-at-home order, the library system opened up an automatic book return system June 1 outside the newly renovated Main Library at 300 N. Roxboro Street. 

Bradley said that, as the national conversation has shifted, so has the demand for new books. 

The New Jim Crow’, ‘How to Be an Antiracist’, ‘Me and White Supremacy’, and ‘White Fragility’ are so popular they’re now on backorder with publishers,  Bradley said. 

Likewise, Stephanie Bonestell, a spokeswoman for the Durham County libraries, said they also have seen a similar increase in interest with titles related to Black Lives Matter, civil rights, and racism in America.

The interest in books by Black authors has prompted important discussions in Durham.  

“It’s been our story,” said Victoria Scott-Miller, the owner of Liberation Station, a Durham based “Pop-Up” bookstore. Their website says their mission is centered on “making representation accessible and amplifying Black voices.”

As conversation around systemic racism continues throughout the city, many are asking Scott-Miller and her staff how to educate themselves on the Black experience. Liberation Station has updated its website with resources, but Scott-Miller said this is still a time of grieving for many in the Black community.

“This is a moment for you to learn, for you to gather, for you to do the research and understand the impact,” Scott-Miller says to like-minded community members. She says that provides them time “so we can have the conversation but we’re not having to show up both grieving and teaching at the same time.”

Throughout the pandemic, the store has transitioned from hosting pop-up events (which were like a new take on the Scholastic book fairs) to an almost entirely virtual platform that even includes online storytimes. Still, Scott-Miller and her husband, who co-own the business, insist on hand delivering all orders within the city (they wear a mask and gloves). 

Victoria Scott-Miller, owner of the Liberation Station Bookstore, carries a full load of books to deliver in Durham. Photo by Henry Haggart | The 9th Street Journal

The couple feels that the personal delivery is a way to connect with customers and provide a special experience.  

“There are a lot of children of color that are seeing themselves in these books for the first time,” she said, “we want them to know that they are of value.” 

Their packages are wrapped in chalkboard paper, tied in red twine, and accented with a green notecard — and a handwritten note.

Photo above: Letters Bookshop in downtown Durham remains closed to the public, but the owners have online ordering. Photo by Henry Haggart, The 9th Street Journal

A stroll through Southpoint

The smell of Auntie Anne’s, once unavoidable, is canceled out by the scent of a lemony floor cleaner. Masked shoppers exchange gentle, knowing looks. In the stores and at the kiosks, cashiers attempt to look approachable behind clear plastic register shields. Customers in line to check out are instructed where to stand by stickers marking 6-foot distances. This is Southpoint mall as Durham begins to reopen

In the past two months of the COVID-19 pandemic, beer-loving Durhamites have been enjoying their brews on their front porch, rather than with a game of cornhole at Ponysaurus or Stand-up Comedy at Durty Bull. As the city, along with many parts of the country, move through the phases of reopening, the hiss of a beer can be heard further and further from home — on the East Campus lawn or at Old North Durham Park. But these familiar outings look different, transformed by the social distance dance we all must do as we adapt to the World with the Virus. 

A stroll through the Streets at Southpoint offers a concentrated look at the choreography of this emerging reality. The parking lot, usually buzzing with shoppers hoping to capitalize on Memorial Day sales, has the feel one might expect during a midday visit on a Tuesday. In the quiet lot the dance begins: Is it alright to park right next to another car? Is that violating social distance etiquette? And walking in: Is it still polite to hold the door open for the person behind you? 

To amble around Southpoint is to do this awkward dance, a once-ordinary walk transformed into navigating a minefield that might hide an invisible disease. A pair of teens joke about crossing the tape line of the boarded-up massage chairs outside Macy’s, but they respectfully step to their right as another shopper comes into their radius. This is the dance. Couples share nervous glances when strangers get too close, but everyone works together to pretend at normalcy, making nonchalant conversation with their gloved cashiers as we shift into our new roles as mask-wearers and social distancers. 

A smattering of the stores have made the decision to open up and the new summer collections are the least of their changes. Hollister now requires masks to enter; Aerie gives them away; Macy’s has hand sanitizer stations at the entrances. Urban Outfitters has gone so far as to tape arrows on the floor to provide shoppers with a suggested path, taking you from room decor to hair accessories, to promote social distancing. 

The open retailers skew younger: Forever 21 and H&M. Pink, marketed toward young adults, is still closed, but Talbots, popular with middle-aged women, is in business. 

There’s no skew to the shoppers.  People of all ages wander the mall. Almost everyone travels in pairs; masks muffle the conversation, which makes the place quieter than usual. 

“This area is for sitting, not eating,” reads a paper sign taped to the Streets’ patio furniture. “This too, shall pass,” it adds. 

The sign hints at a return to normalcy, but that day is probably a long way in the future. Restaurants have shifted primarily to pick-up options. Food court favorites like Built (Custom Burgers) and Pholicious are open, but there’s not really any place to sit.

The fountains have gone dry as sculptures of children wait out an invisible storm for the mall to return to normal. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal

The dark storefronts have paper signs with vague explanations and a little hope. The AMC Theatre says it is closed “today,” apologizing for the “inconvenience.” Bath & Body Works stresses the safety of their employees in the decision. 

What’s next for these stores? Will they open their doors again soon? Or fold like so many seemingly impenetrable companies taken down by the virus (JCPenney has filed for bankruptcy, while Pier 1 is closing all of its 540 stores)? Are they really holding back out of safety concerns? Financial difficulties? How are their workers holding up without the income? It seems these answers will not be available until “further notice.”

The mall, like Durham, is in a state of transition. The tables at the food court are cordoned off and the fountain outside the movie theatre is drained, like a lake after a drought.  But even so, people are puttering about — attempting to make sense of it all. There is an eeriness to this new world and a guilt to participating in it. How essential is this trip? Who am I putting at risk by making it? These questions lead to the bigger one hanging above Durham, palpable in public spaces like this: Are we ready for Phase 2?

In photo above, seating in the food court has been moved to discourage seating. Photo by Carmela Guaglianone | The 9th Street Journal