Podculture: Turning the Page: a new chapter in Evanston’s literary community

Wilson Chapman, The Monthly Editor

As a stay-at-home order has been issued in the state of Illinois, booksellers have had to find ways to adapt to help promote social distancing. Independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings started a GoFundMe campaign after the stay-at-home order was issued. Evanston Public Library has transitioned their programming to be all digital during the pandemic.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Hi, my name is Wilson Chapman. Welcome to Podculture, a Daily Northwestern podcast covering the arts on and around Northwestern’s campus. With the state of Illinois on a stay-at-home order, some people have turned to their reading lists. But like other institutions, bookstores and libraries must also adapt to social-distancing protocols. This episode looks at how the bookselling business has been affected and how Northwestern students are using books to stay connected with their peers during the pandemic.

NINA BARRETT: We closed to the public on March 16. So we were a bit ahead of the actual stay-at-home order in Illinois.

WILSON CHAPMAN: That was Nina Barrett, a Medill alum and the owner of Bookends & Beginnings, an independent bookstore in downtown Evanston. Before the store closed, Nina said they were having quite a bit of walk-in business.

NINA BARRETT: There were rumors that the stay-at-home order was coming. And so not quite to the extent that people were buying toilet paper, but a lot of readers got panicked about not having enough reading for their quarantine. We were doing great business for, I would say, the three days prior to that, which on the one hand, was very heartening. But on the other hand, if you were reading the news at that point, and starting to think about how this virus was spreading, I was feeling very uncomfortable about the situation that that was putting our staff in, and, just customers in the store, because, you know, clearly whoever is sitting up at the front counter is taking credit cards and taking money.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Nina talked to her staff on March 15 and said they agreed it would be safest to close in-store operations to the public. Then, they switched to a delivery service.

NINA BARRETT: The staff would stay in the store. We would continue to order books to be delivered to the store. We offered free shipping; we offered free delivery. Again, we got an incredible response to that, we were doing really well with that. But as the week went on, and the news stories got worse, again, I just started to feel very uncomfortable about that situation because it was clear that even with a very small staff, any of us could have been exposed, any of us could be sharing that keyboard, be sharing that phone. And it just didn’t look like a good idea to continue doing that.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Soon after, Gov. J.B. Pritzker issued a stay-at-home order to begin on March 21. The day before, staff processed everything they had promised to deliver, then completely closed the store. Now, Bookends remains active through online orders that ship to customers. They have also found other ways to help make sure they can reopen when the pandemic passes.

NINA BARRETT: I certainly don’t feel like we love to ask people to just throw some money at us, and especially right now, because we really understand that a lot of people lost their jobs or are now not certain what the future of their jobs are. So there are a lot of people who are in scary financial circumstances themselves. But I feel a responsibility to try to keep my business alive any way I can. And so, we went ahead and we launched this GoFundMe campaign on Sunday. And people have been amazing about supporting that. And that is going to make a huge difference to us. We also made a pledge that 10 percent of the money that we raised that way, we’re going to go ahead and donate to the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

WILSON CHAPMAN: As of April 13, the Bookends and Beginnings GoFundMe has already raised over $26,000. Barrett said although it will be difficult, she is determined to make sure all of her staff members remain employed while the store remains closed.

NINA BARRETT: Now we have a very small staff. But I felt very committed to keeping them employed. I really did not want to lay off anybody or furlough anybody because it’s not their fault and they still have to pay their rent. And I felt like it’s sort of the owner’s responsibility to take care of your people if you can, and I don’t want to judge anybody else because in a bigger operation, the owners are faced with a bigger problem.

WILSON CHAPMAN: As of now, people can’t scan the shelves of bookstores or libraries, but Evanston Public Library has responded by transitioning much of its programing online. This is Heather Norberg, the lifelong learning and literacy manager for EPL.

HEATHER NORBERG: Everybody is working from home. We have added a lot of online resources, since we closed our physical locations. We have added more ebooks, more e-audio books. We’ve created a way so that Evanston residents who didn’t have library cards already could just apply for and automatically get a library card that would give them access to all of our online materials. We’ve been working with the schools, District 65 and ETHS to get all of the schools and teachers library access remotely. And we have been looking at ways to transfer some of our programming online.

WILSON CHAPMAN: They’ve planned Zoom book discussions and virtual meet-ups for Dungeons & Dragons and anime club. They’re also supporting virtual content for kids like curating videos of authors reading their books. But these changes don’t come without their difficulties.

HEATHER NORBERG: It’s definitely an adjustment. The public library as a physical space is like a community space where a lot of different things happen, so moving that online is an adjustment. But we’re hopeful that people will be interested in keeping relationships with their community and having some stress release time when they’re not worried about the situation in the world.

WILSON CHAPMAN: EPL also is focusing on more than books. With COVID-19 hitting some community members hard, they’ve been working on initiatives to keep more vulnerable members of the Evanston community safe.

HEATHER NORBERG: We’re also reaching out to our patrons who may not have Internet access via the telephone. We’re calling people that we know would use our resources and making sure that they know about information available in Evanston. We’re trying to help get the word out about all of the programs that are happening at the homeless shelters and at the parks for food distribution and through the city of Evanston. All of the programs that they have implemented for people who are struggling, so we’re helping get the word out to our community about all of those programs.

WILSON CHAPMAN: While booksellers and librarians are adapting to keep themselves afloat and operational during the stay-at-home order, Northwestern students have been using books as a way to keep themselves connected with their peers. Communication freshman Kara Toll is in the process of beginning a virtual book club with members of her dorm during the spring quarter.

KARA TOLL: Starting spring quarter, I’m one of the co-social chairs for our residential college, which is Shepard Residential College. And I was hoping to find a way for all of us to sort of stay in touch since we’re not gonna be able to plan the usual events. And I myself I’m a little bit of a bookworm, and so I really loved the idea of being able to connect everybody that way since it’s something that we could all do from home, and then use something like Zoom to talk about it. I’ve been kind of wanting to do something like that for a little while and with everything going on with the coronavirus, it seems like a good time to try to keep everyone connected that way. And since everybody suddenly has a lot more time than I think any of us anticipated, hopefully that’ll allow us to take advantage of that extra free time to do some reading.

WILSON CHAPMAN: The book club members have already voted on the genre and a book to read.

KARA TOLL: We’re planning on reading Less by Andrew Greer. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve been wanting to since it won a Pulitzer Prize. It’s been on my list forever, so I was really excited that other people were also interested in that. And I think that we’re aiming to coordinate so that everybody can get it on an app like Overdrive, which connects to your local library district, or we can use the Evanston library district.

WILSON CHAPMAN: Kara hopes that the book club will help keep her dorm connected during the spring, even with very few students on campus.

KARA TOLL: Something that I’ve loved about SMQ is that we have a really amazing sense of community, and I’m hoping that we can maintain that through spring quarter and maybe even expand it. And that’s going to be difficult given that we can’t actually be physically seeing each other all the time like we would be if we were living there. But I’m hoping that we can all stay as connected as we have been the last couple of quarters and continue to build the community that made me love it so much and made me want to be a social chair.

WILSON CHAPMAN: But to Kara, this book club is more than just a social event. It’s an opportunity to take up one of her favorite pastimes.

KARA TOLL: Reading books is incredibly important because exposing yourself to new perspectives and stories can really enhance your understanding of the world around you. But I think right now, it’s even more important to stay connected that way because I think we’re all kind of trapped in our own little bubble for the foreseeable future, so I think being able to escape that a little bit is a really valuable thing.

WILSON CHAPMAN: That’s it for this episode of Podculture. Thanks for tuning in.

WILSON CHAPMAN: This episode was reported and produced by me, Wilson Chapman. It was edited by Molly Lubbers and Kalen Luciano. The editor in chief of The Daily Northwestern is Marissa Martinez.

Email: [email protected]
Twitter: @wilsonchapman6

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