Economy Health

There’s no avoiding the fact that these are scary times. 

It’s natural to want to divert our attention, if only for a moment, towards fictional worlds. Sometimes, those worlds may be even scarier than our own. Or they may offer comfort, a place to go when the news looks bad. 

I know I do. In 2013, the Boston Marathon was bombed a few blocks from where I was attending journalism school. After long days reporting on the bombing and the ensuing manhunt for Emerson College’s radio station, I read Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina for the first time.

As businesses all across Kentucky have closed their doors and the libraries are shuttered, some bookstores have found success through online sales and deliveries in keeping up the spirits of those social distancing at home.

For a certain kind of person — book lovers like myself — book deliveries and time combine to offer a silver lining.

“‘I’m finally going to get to read Les Mis.’ ‘I’m finally going to get to read Proust.’” 

Kelly Estep, a co-owner of Carmichael’s Bookstore, said those are the kinds of things she’s been hearing in the last couple weeks.

The store itself is empty and quiet, besides the phone calls and occasional bustle of scouring walls of books for orders and bagging them up for Louisville delivery. Customers can also order curbside pickup, or place orders by standard mail.

Estep says they’ve had more online orders than usual. It’s probably not going to make up for the foot traffic the store would normally see. Still, it’s a way to keep working.

“We are going to do everything that we can do to keep books in peoples hands as long as we possibly can,” Estep said.

Carmichael’s delivered two books to my front porch last week, both by science fiction legend Ursula Le Guin. I’m almost finished with one, The Left Hand of Darkness, already. Set on the winter planet of Gethen, where sex and gender are alien concepts, the book’s characters face betrayal, malevolent bureaucracies, a prison camp thousands of miles across a distant glacier. But, importantly, they don’t face a novel coronavirus.

Estep says most people seem to be gravitating towards reading that is lighter than the news of the day, and ordering books that offer a bit of an escape. “Which is what reading does,” Estep said. “Reading takes us out of our world.”

That sense of comfort is part of what’s keeping Sarah Gardiner going. Gardiner opened Nanny Goat books in NULU in 2018. 

“Literature has always been one way that people can communicate over time and space and art in general and I think that will be a bigger focus in the coming weeks as people do remain in quarantine,” Gardiner said. 

Gardiner is currently in the process of opening a publishing house for under-represented writers, so she’s not selling books during the pandemic. But she is planning to host book and poetry readings online over the coming weeks.

“While the doctors are out there doing their thing I think it’s also important for the artists to help the other end of the spectrum and help with morale.”

Every business owner I talked to for this story said their stores are about more than selling books: they are fostering community in Louisville.

That’s what brought Brett Eugene Ralph back to Louisville to open Surface Noise, a bookstore and record shop on Baxter Avenue. It’s closed now, along with the rest of the state’s non-essential retail.

A few days before the store closed its doors,. I bought If On A Winter’s Night A Traveler by Italo Calvino, a weird, puzzle of a book about the places reading can take you, even if you can’t go anywhere. In it, Calvino says a library is like a great harbor, something you can return to safely “after circling the world from book to book.”

Ralph says moving the business online takes away the best parts of owning the store.

“I lived alone in the country for 20 years, the solitary life of the poet professor and I moved back to Louisville to immerse myself in the community,” Ralph said. “Letting go of that has been tough.”

But Ralph recognizes that everyone is making sacrifices to keep themselves and their neighbors healthy. Keeping the doors closed, for now, is how his store can do its part.

Here are a few Louisville independent book sellers you can support:

Carmichael’s Bookstore | Louisville’s Oldest Independent Bookstore

Nanny Goat Books on Facebook

Surface Noise on Instagram

Surface Noise on Discogs

McQuixote Books & Coffee on Facebook