In the early days of the 2020 shutdown, I stood outside Spellbinder Books on Main Street. Inside, Courtney was preparing my book order for me. She set a paper bag on a table on the sidewalk, and we waved to each other across what felt like a great distance. In those days, the windows up and down Main Street were shuttered, and I feared for the fate of local businesses. Yet even with windows dimmed and staff working in solitude, the presence of Spellbinder Books, a hub of art and community in our beloved Bishop, was a comfort. I chatted with owner Lynne Almeida and bookseller Adrian Muñoz about how it felt to own and operate an independent bookstore during the pandemic.
Kendra: The shutdown in March of 2020 felt pretty abrupt. When did you get the sense that something really big was gonna happen?
Lynne: Not more than a few days before the shutdown notice, to be honest. It happened like BAM.
Adrian: When everyone was looking for N95 masks, when those were selling out, I started to wonder. And I knew we were probably going to have to close, but I didn’t think it would be as extreme as it was.
Lynne: We were closed to the public for about two months.
Adrian: The day of the shutdown, this was our first task. We called people who had books on order and we said: we don’t know yet how we’re going to get these to you. But we’re going to figure it out.
Lynne: We did curbside pickup and deliveries. We didn’t feel good about saying: here’s your $14 book, and here’s a $20 delivery fee, so we did deliveries for free.
Adrian: Every day I’d go out and deliver a book or two, even as far as Starlight.
Lynne: it was a difficult time. Our sales were down by about 80%. So we were running at about 20% of normal sales. We were barely on life support. On top of reduced sales, everything took ten times longer than usual. Every time someone came to the door we had to stop what we were doing, go outside, sanitize, etc.
Adrian: We were working reduced hours and we were working alone. To communicate we left each other notes, constant notes back and forth. At one point I left Courtney a note asking, “Do you feel overwhelmed?” And she responded, “Yeah!”
Kendra: What was it like working by yourself?
Adrian: Under those circumstances, working by myself was strange. I can probably talk for 24 hours nonstop; being here alone was weird.
Lynne: Did you talk to yourself?
Adrian: I blared music! I was like, I’m gonna drown this silence. I played “Lemon Boy” by Cape Town every day. Now when I hear it, it reminds me of being here by myself during the shutdown. I remember sitting in the store and telling myself, I have a job still. Even if it’s 12 hours a week instead of 40. It’s gonna be alright, it’s gonna work out. But it felt lonely.
Lynne: Lynne: I plan out my life a good six months in advance, almost to the day. Not that I love being that way, but that’s the only way to balance so many things. And during the worst of the pandemic you couldn’t even plan out six minutes.
Everybody had covid exhaustion. It wasn’t like, “Oh I have a whole lovely new level of anxiety of my life, I’m gonna get used to it.” No. It’s cumulative.
Kendra: What were some of the biggest challenges of keeping Spellbinder alive?
Lynne: The financial aspect of juggling everything and stringing our non-existent resources through those months was stressful for me. Our quietest time of year is after the holidays through about fishing opener or Mule Days. It is not busy in here financially during those times. And that is when the shutdown hit. We had to have a conversation with our landlord and tell them: we’ll pay you as we can.
The bill from our book supplier comes through at the end of the month. And if you don’t pay it, you don’t get any more books. And where was that bill going to come from?
In good times, an independent bookstore is living month to month. And in that slow period of the year, you might be living week to week or day to day, wondering, are we gonna have enough money to keep the lights on, literally?
Kendra: Talk to me about dealing with county mask mandates. Who gets to be the bouncer?
Adrian: We take turns! It can be rough. At least everyone likes our little sign with the dog showing how to wear a mask. Everyone laughs at it. Some people laugh at it while still wearing their mast incorrectly.
Lynne: I’ve tried jokes when we get pushback. I’ve tried saying, “This is a privately owned business, I can ask people to wear whatever I think is a good idea, so you’re lucky you didn’t get here on purple toga and tiara day. It’s only mask day.” They don’t think it’s funny!
Adrian: At first the complaint we heard a lot was, “Oh, this doesn’t work.” Now the complaint is, “I’m tired of doing this.” And we just say, “Thank you for still doing it. Nobody likes it, but it’s a county mandate and thank you for doing it.”
Kendra: It sounds like even after you were allowed to reopen, the extra burdens continued.
Lynne: We’ve spent—probably $1,000 on hand sanitizer, masks, mask signage, etc.
Adrian: Sometimes I just don’t have it in me to ask someone to wear a mask and I have to ask my coworker Courtney to do it. It’s just exhausting. Sometimes people stomp out. Courtney got called a Mask-Nazi by a guy who was hiding in the children section without a mask.
Lynne: The stressful thing is, you never know what’s next: which person coming in is going to be a problem, minor or large.
Kendra: Did you feel like you had to educate yourselves on de-escalation?
Adrian: There is the anxiety of confrontation. All of us are super non-confrontational.
Lynne: Like, to a fault! Really, by nature, everyone who works in this place is a pro at customer service and being nice to people and making people feel good about themselves when they come in here. That’s our job. We learned a lot by trial and error.
Adrian: I no longer say, “I’m sorry,” or “No worries.” I just ask them to do what the county mandates, and then I say “Thank you.” I don’t argue about whether masks work, I just say “Thank you, I appreciate that.”
Lynne: The vast majority of interactions with people who come in here are pleasant and delightful and edifying. But the anxiety that the next person who comes in might be confrontational, every day for over a year…that takes a toll.
Adrian: My biggest fear when I first started working here was: What if someone robs the store? And now it’s: What if someone won’t wear their mask!?
Kendra: Do you think the pandemic is going to have an impact on the kind of books that get written?
Lynne: Sometimes I’ll be watching Netflix and I’ll think, where are your masks!?
Adrian: Media is so much about relatability. Books will be written to reflect the new reality that we can all relate to now. I do look forward to that and think it will be interesting.
Kendra: Is there anything you’re going to miss about wearing a mask, when we eventually get back there?
Lynne: I make faces at people!
Just kidding! But being a woman, especially in a retail position in a small town, there’s no anonymity. I feel like I’m on stage all the time. And I feel like, in general, I have to have a pleasant facial expression all the time. It’s that general underlying pressure all the time. I mean, how many times in your life as a woman have you had a stranger come up to you and tell you to smile? All of that’s been off the table for a whole year. We haven’t have a problem with inappropriate attention to our staff. There’s been plenty to contend with, but at least we’ve had a break from that stuff.
…Meanwhile, I have mascne!
Adrian: I have mascne, too!
Kendra: Any pandemic bright spots?
Lynne: I have a newfound interest in mixology and I have learned several new cocktails! What else…I learned how to bake bread?
Adrian: I found a lot of new music. A lot of stuff I normally wouldn’t listen to. I had a lot more time to sleep on my four days off. I took naps! And I revisited the guitar. I think some down time did me a lot of good. Even in the midst of the chaos, I had to do something to chill. Music and reading served me well.
Kendra: Does it feel like people care about keeping Spellbinder here?
Lynne: There was such an outpouring of support. Cards, offers of help, people offering to just give us money!
Each January I print out a list of bestselling books and best customers. I come in here and do that on New Year’s day. At the end of 2020, the length of that list…I printed out the report and I was sitting here crying. And I’m not a crier. But there were so many people who made a point of shopping here.
Adrian: None of us would want to live in a town without a bookstore!
Lynne: Sometimes I wonder, do people really care about having a bookstore? Like if Spellbinder was gone tomorrow, would they be like, “Oh well, that’s sad, I’ll just get it on Amazon though.” But that really, genuinely—and I am a jaded cynic—that made me feel valued in this community. And that’s a huge, huge piece of why we’re still here.
Spellbinder would like to thank the Eastern Sierra community for their love and support. And the author of this article would like to encourage you to do your holiday shopping—or spend your gift cash after the holidays!—right here in your hometown. Happy holidays, everybody!
Featured Photo caption: Booksellers Courtney McElvogue, Adrian Muñoz, and Campbell Spoonhunter display wares, including new Spellbinder tote bags and gifts handmade by staff.