Since moving to its current location in 2009, Midtown Scholar Bookstore has become a mainstay in the commerce and culture of Harrisburg’s Midtown neighborhood.
But on March 15, 2020, like hundreds of other small businesses in Harrisburg, the thriving store suddenly faced the reality that it would have to close its doors in the face of the rapidly expanding coronavirus pandemic.
Now, after more than 400 days without walk-in customers, the Scholar has re-opened to the public and is anticipating the days when it soon will be filled with loyal patrons looking for the latest bestseller or excited about interacting with a favorite author.
Confronting the instant disappearance of those customers in the chaotic early days of COVID-19, Alex Brubaker, who became the store’s manager in the summer of 2018, realized that he “had to get creative.”
One immediate decision involved redeploying resources to the business’s existing e-commerce division, which had focused on selling used books. He now pivoted to sales of new ones as customers, eager for fresh reading material during the pandemic, enthusiastically embraced online book buying.
But another critical choice, which Brubaker admits was made without any long-term plan, was to immediately move the store’s calendar of author readings and interviews onto Zoom and significantly expand their frequency, occasionally featuring two events in a single evening. The bookstore became one of the first in the country to make the shift—within a week of the shutdown—and, by the time of the re-opening, it had presented some 150 of these programs.
While a typical event drew about 200 viewers, several, like the one featuring Madeleine Miller promoting the paperback edition of her novel “Circe,” attracted an audience of more than 1,000 from around the world.
The virtual programs also allowed the store to introduce its brand to new customers and to host well-known authors like James Patterson, John Grisham and Martha Stewart, who may not ordinarily make Harrisburg a stop on an in-person book tour, Brubaker noted.
Though it wasn’t only nationally known authors who took advantage of the new venue. Local writer Joel Burcat said that the chance to promote his second novel, “Amid Rage,” in the virtual space in February 2021, “meant everything” to him.
“[That event] gave me exposure far beyond what I would have had in-store,” he said, after his plans for an in-person launch were derailed by COVID.
Beginning in May 2020, the Scholar also began what became highly popular weekly sidewalk sales on Fridays and Saturdays—some 100 during the shutdown. These allowed customers to maintain their physical connection to the store, even if they couldn’t enter to browse the shelves or sip a latte from the café.
Brubaker admitted that he was skeptical about these initiatives, but called it “really humbling” to see “the love for this place the community of Harrisburg has.”
On May 28, the store’s re-opening date, a cool, overcast Friday, co-owner and Harrisburg Mayor Eric Papenfuse, along with the familiar aroma of brewing coffee, greeted the masked customers who browsed the store at the start of what Brubaker described as a “phenomenal” two-day opening.
Beryl Kuhr, a regular from Susquehanna Township, waited to pick up one of the online orders she had placed through the website, Bookshop, which donates a portion of its sales to participating independent bookstores.
“It feels wonderful to be inside and to have this whole selection of books,” she said, smiling broadly.
But it wasn’t only local readers who were happy for the opportunity to engage in a book lover’s passion—browsing. Chambersburg resident Abigail Maley was eager to soak up the atmosphere.
“I can smell the books again,” she said, a bit sheepishly. “It’s one of the things I like about coming to a physical bookstore.”
Midtown Scholar wasn’t alone in dealing with the pandemic’s upheaval. The American Booksellers Association, the trade group representing independent bookstores, reported that it lost 80 members due to store closings in 2020. But John Mutter, editor-in-chief and co-founder of the industry publication, Shelf Awareness, noted that many independent booksellers “have done better than anyone could have hoped for.”
Brubaker didn’t minimize the economic challenges of the closure.
“Like all small businesses, we were hurt,” he said. “But we are feeling really fortunate that we were one of those bookstores that was able to stay alive and survive the pandemic.”
Now, he’s looking forward eagerly to bookselling in the post-COVID world.
While virtual events will continue through the summer, the store already is in discussions with some publishers about live author appearances once fall arrives. In-store hours will expand gradually as conditions permit, with the hope of resuming normal operations before the beginning of the holiday shopping season.
But as Brubaker reflected on 14 months of pandemic life, one lesson will remain with him—nothing will replace the in-person book browsing experience.
“If anything, it confirmed what I do for a living and that independent bookstores need to be here as physical locations in order to grow a literary community,” he said. “Once that was taken away, it made me realize how important that is to a community.”
Midtown Scholar Bookstore-Café is located at 1302 N. 3rd St., Harrisburg. For more information, visit www.midtownscholar.com.
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