coronavirus retail

The little bookstore that could

Voices From the Front: McMinnville’s Third Street Books rides out COVID-19 with home deliveries, curbside pickup, and mail order

Over the past decade or so, every time I see one of those The End of Books stories or yet another article about how Amazon is crushing small, family-owned businesses or how eBooks are rendering bookstores irrelevant, I’ll make a point of asking Sylla McClellan, who has owned and operated Third Street Books in downtown McMinnville since 2004, how her shop is doing.

The answer is usually positive, sometimes less so. Given how the odds are stacked against indie bookstores even in the best of times, Third Street Books stands out as a survivor. So far, at least. That’s why I thought the occasion of a pandemic might be a good time to check in.


OREGON IN SHUTDOWN: VOICES FROM THE FRONT


In Yamhill County, most of our restaurants are shut down, though a few have modified their menus for curbside pickup. Third Street’s crown jewel, McMenamins Hotel Oregon, is shuttered. When I had breakfast there a few days before the governor’s executive order closed restaurants statewide, I was the only one in the restaurant at 9 a.m. Third Street Books just down the block remained open to customers, but the next day, March 12, McClellan posted this on Facebook:

“I have never spent so much time thinking about public health and the impact on our economy that it can (and will) have on my business. The news is changing so fast I have a hard time keeping up. We’ve been wiping down door handles and counter-tops all week. No hugging, handshaking or coughing is allowed (only sort of joking)!”

Sylla McClellan (right) laid off her staff at Third Street Books when the coronavirus forced the shop to close its doors, but has hired back one employee. Emily Kelly (left) hosts online story times, streaming Thursday mornings on Facebook. Photo by: David Bates
Sylla McClellan (right) laid off her staff at Third Street Books when the coronavirus forced the shop to close its doors, but has hired back one employee. Emily Kelly (left) hosts online story times, streaming Thursday mornings on Facebook. Photo by: David Bates

There’s always been a strong “shop local” culture in McMinnville, which clearly helps stores such as Third Street Books. McClellan is fortunate enough to run a bookstore in a city that likes to read. When New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof and his wife, Sheryl WuDunn, were here in February to plug their book, more than 800 people showed up. Anecdotally, it seems there’s a high concentration of writers, artists, and teachers who, along with many others, must be regularly satiated with reading material — now, more than ever. Via email, McClellan and I talked about how you run a bookshop during a pandemic. The exchange below has been edited for length and clarity.

Let’s start at the beginning, just to give readers some context about how Third Street Books was positioned as the pandemic hit. Give us the quick version of the store’s origin and history, how you came to start it.

McClellan: In 2004, I purchased the then-named The Book Shoppe on Third. We opened in early January of that year with fresh paint as Third Street Books. I’ve always been grateful to be in a community that values having access to books. The downturn of ’08 didn’t really hit us until 2011. It was tough, but we learned how to slim down, work hard, and survive. That experience will be helpful now.

How was the shop doing before COVID-19? It seems like every time I’ve asked over the years how things are going there, you seem pretty upbeat.

We were solid before mid-March. We had a great staff of Real Professional Booksellers, as I like to call everyone, with a combined bookselling history of over 50 years. We were moving forward with new ideas; author visits to schools, tiptoeing into expanding our events offerings, and getting out of debt! Now all that has changed.

Continues…