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The little bookstore that could

McMinnville’s Third Street Books rides out COVID-19 with home deliveries, curbside pickup, and mail order.

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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.

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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.

What was your background prior to buying the shop? Weren’t you at Powell’s Books for a while?

I worked at Borders for five years, Powell’s for a year, and then two years at a small chain of independents in California called Copperfield’s. At each job, I learned about the book industry, how to run (and how not to run) a business. I am also involved in the Pacific Northwest Booksellers Association, as well as the American Booksellers Association.

When the virus hit and it became clear everything was shutting down, what did you do? I know you remained open for about four hours a day. Did anyone take advantage of that?

The first week we limited hours. Then reality set in and we realized it just didn’t make sense to be open. We are lucky in that we already had a website and have been selling books online for a few years — not a lot, but the structure was already there. So we made some quick changes; started offering media mail for $1 per book and home delivery within the county as well as curbside pickup between 10 and 2. After a few weeks of me driving to the deep corners of Yamhill County, we decided to limit deliveries to purchases over $25 and within the McMinnville city limits. We raised the price on media mail to $2 per book. We just need to make sure we aren’t losing money with these offers. All options have been really popular, more than I thought. And people have been extremely grateful, which always feels great.

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How did you involve the employees in coming up with the new business model?

I laid all my staff off when we closed our doors. I wanted them to be able to file for unemployment while there still might be time and money available. Since then, I have been busy enough that I have been able to hire one of them back. We talk about how to handle sales. We wipe everything down in the morning and the late afternoon. We wear masks when handing books to customers outside. We wash our hands a lot. And I check-in with her to see how she is and if her comfort level has changed.

Sylla McClellan delivers a book order from Third Street Books. Photo by: David Bates
Sylla McClellan delivers a book order from Third Street Books. Photo by: David Bates

A lot of businesses are doing home deliveries, and I’m wondering if that might be a new thing. Is that a service you might keep when we return to normalcy? Does that pencil out?

This is something we are wondering about ourselves. Currently, it does not pencil out. We have limited delivery to within the McMinnville city limits and that helps a bit, but we are definitely losing money. Will we continue with it? We might. It depends on a number of things — someone on staff willing to drive, us figuring out what to charge for delivery, and demand.

Regarding titles and genres people started buying for home delivery, was it any different from prior to mid-March?

Lots of puzzles and kids’ education titles have been popular. Several people said they are working their way through lists of classic books that they’ve never read. This week we’ve had several orders for The Great Influenza by John M. Barry. For the most part, people are asking for recommendations of lighter fare.

I noticed on Facebook you’re doing a weekly story time. Tell us how that came together and how it works.

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Emily Kelly, whom I was able to hire back, is great at reading aloud and proposed that we host a Facebook live story time at 11 a.m. Thursdays. She researched the copyright issues. Almost all publishers have granted people the rights to do these recorded story times, but we can only keep them online for 24 hours. It has been pretty popular!

I’ve been down Third a few times and it’s pretty dead, particularly those first two weeks. What was that like, coming in to work in such a radically different environment, vibe-wise?

It is strange. First off, there is no place for me to get my mid-morning coffee! And it is so quiet! I miss seeing people walking about. And it’s been eerie being able to walk in the middle of the street with zero threat of running into a car.

A Republican strategist on Twitter, Rick Wilson, was asking about positive local stories in the midst of the pandemic. I mentioned your store and how you were keeping pretty busy. He shared my comment with his followers, and the response was staggering. People loved it.

That’s great! Thanks for sharing about us. The first week I was feeling pretty sorry for myself. I think I went through several stages of grief. Then one night I sort of snapped out of it. So many people have it so much worse. I have a home. I am healthy and so are most of my family and friends. The bookstore will be OK. Knowing that everyone is experiencing this is something that is strange and relieving at the same time. This isn’t a personal failure, and there isn’t a ton I can do to fix it except take care of my people.

What are you reading right now?

I just started Joy Williams’ The Quick and The Dead. It is weird and wacky and so far, I love it. No pandemics anywhere in sight!

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Anything special planned, any ideas for when you finally open up like normal? Or will there be a new normal?

Nothing planned, but I dream of Third Street being closed to traffic and people just wandering around eating, drinking, laughing. Live music is playing somewhere, shops are open late, and everyone is relaxed and happy to see each other again. That probably won’t happen, but one can dream!

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Since I started chatting with McClellan, the McMinnville Public Library (which remains closed) has started doing home deliveries within the city limits. More information about that may be found here.

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This story is supported in part by a grant from the Yamhill County Cultural Coalition, Oregon Cultural Trust, and Oregon Community Foundation.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

David Bates is an Oregon journalist with more than 20 years as a
newspaper editor and reporter in the Willamette Valley, covering
virtually every topic imaginable and with a strong background in
arts/culture journalism. He has lived in Yamhill County since 1996 and
is working as a freelance writer. He has a long history of involvement in
the theater arts, acting and on occasion directing for Gallery Players
of Oregon and other area theaters. You can also find him on
Substack, where he writes about art and culture at Artlandia.

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