How Montclair’s Great Good Place for Books survived COVID
By Lou Fancher
Within 24 hours of the COVID-19 lockdown starting last year, A Great Good Place for Books relocated its entire headquarters. The independent brick-and-mortar bookstore in the heart of tiny, bustling Montclair Village converted to all online commerce. Operations ran from 15-year owner Kathleen Caldwell’s kitchen table, and transactions happened entirely on a smartphone’s tiny screen.
“I was running the company doing Zoom on a phone,” she said in a recent interview a year later. “I didn’t have a camera on my computer. I was lucky my event guy — Mike Kelleher — helped me transition the business overnight. My staff are the most wonderful people ever. We’re a true team. I scored the employee-palooza.”
Curbside pickup was the norm for the first three months till June, when the shop was able to allow up to six customers inside — four during spike times — with proper masking, hand sanitizing and social distancing. Currently heartened by expanded capacity and in-store shopping six days a week, Caldwell says the local community and nearby businesses banded together throughout the year.
“The Flower Outlet took in boxes for us if we weren’t around when they arrived. In the beginning, I let the farmers’ market people use our restroom, but we stopped that because we began to worry about the exposure. We had the best Christmas we’ve ever had, which is something to crow about during a pandemic. It’s a village with so much support from customers (that) it’s astounding to me,” she says.
In a recent conversation at the shop, staff member Samantha Sanderson says customers told her that coming into the store to browse was immensely comforting during the pandemic.
“There were so few spaces open, and it was an interesting mix. Some people definitely came to find books to escape, but others wanted to read about climate change, the economy and pandemics.”
The largest driving force influencing book selection was a surge of interest in books on systemic racism, white privilege and BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People Of Color) alliance.
“There was a dramatic, long-overdue desire to read books by Black authors and evidence linking that to the Black Lives Matter movement after the George Floyd murder,” Sanderson says. “That energy continues.”
Akaylah Douglas, 20, is a GGPB staff member who will soon return to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to resume studies toward a degree in sustainable food systems and communities. Asked about customers’ book-buying habits, she says, “I’m glad people are shifting to reading more books by Black authors. Especially in the YA books I read, there are mostly white characters. Stories that come from us, from Black people and people of color, are told first-person. I think reading those stories will help people have a wider view of who Black people are, where they live, what they can do.”
For Douglas, the pandemic temporarily disrupted her college career, but it also solidified her resolve.
“It amplified what I want to do. We live by walking on the backs of others, on other life forms, on the planet. That’s not sustainable. I want to develop urban farming, establish small community food and clothing markets, work on a local level to disperse power to everyone so they can offer their diversity.”
Browsing in the store with her young daughter is Jackie Oh, of Piedmont. She says the Saturday morning stop at the bookstore is their first in-person visit since the pandemic began.
“I usually do all the book shopping online, but it’s nice for her to be able to make her own choices,” said Oh.
During the long year of following safety protocols, Oh said reading books at night with her children was a welcome practice, providing the family with a quiet, peaceful way to reconnect at the end each day.
in addition to merely surviving during the pandemic, GGPB’s website was entirely overhauled for e-commerce, Zoom events filled the always-busy calendar, best-selling authors Nina LaCour and Jandy Nelson did a benefit that raised $2,500, writer friends such as Anne Lamott and Daniel Nayeri offered online readings, and Caldwell made door-to-door deliveries for “book emergencies” when a customer wasn’t able to pick up orders (“Because you know those book emergencies are serious,” she says).
A federal Paycheck Protection Program loan let Caldwell retain core staff, and her two sisters — rock-solid supporters for life — stepped up with BLM library suggestions, nightly phone calls and even star-shaped lights strung up throughout her house one time when she returned after a long day at the store.
Like Sanderson and Douglas, Caldwell says books on race relations have sold by the caseload and indicate that customers want to educate themselves about social-justice arguments. While keeping her staff and customers safe is the number-one concern, Caldwell said she’s eager to resume live events and misses the young readers who hung out at the store after school.
“The kids are a part of the fabric of the store. I can’t give out hugs or cookies right now, but I hope we can start that again after COVID is over.”
Caldwell recalls the time just more than 15 years ago when former GGPB owner Debi Echlin treated her to a birthday lunch at the Claremont Hotel in Berkeley.
“She asked if something happened to her, ‘could she give me the bookstore?’ ” says Caldwell, her voice still ringing with amazement. “That was in April. Debi died on Thanksgiving that same year. You never think that kind of thing could happen.
“I can say my biggest cheerleader was my mom. I’d call her when I felt overwhelmed and she’d say, ‘Yup, you can do it.’ She gave me a nightly pep talk for the first three months. Her support and the community just came out like crazy. We had an amazing holiday season. It was scary, but having someone telling you all the time you can do it made the difference. The wonderful thing is that the pandemic has shown people that if you want your town to stay vibrant, you have to support it.”