Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Reopened Books

Just like books, well-worn stores can have new beginnings
REENGINEERED: Bibliophiles will enjoy Recycled Bookstore's expanded space now that coronavirus restrictions are lifting. Photo by Gary Singh

With the reopening of Recycle Bookstore, the righteous art of browsing has returned to the Alameda. To riff on Rumi: Out beyond the field of boarded-up windows, books await us. I will meet you there.

Many businesses along the Alameda took the precautionary measure of boarding up their windows during the recent protests, creating a desolate, apocalyptic scenario. At Recycle, the windows were still covered up during the soft opening last Friday, but the very next day, one could look right on through—the wood was gone.

Inside, the piles on the floor were much smaller, yet the place was raring to go. As of right now, anyone can bring in books for trade or cash, as long as they adhere to some logical safety measures. Patrons wear masks and practice physical distancing. As long as you're a compassionate, empathetic, heartfelt person with real human feelings, you shouldn't have an issue with the rules.

"The general rules are as when you're inside a grocery store; it's essentially the same type of rules," said Eric Johnson, the store manager. "You make sure you stay six feet away from other people. I made my own rule of two people per aisle, and then we tried to make the transition as touchless as possible between customers and whoever's ringing them up. We closed the bathroom because I didn't even want to think about that."

At the counter, a large plastic shield now separates customers from the person taking their money; pretty much the same as in a grocery store.

Recycle recently expanded into the former-tenant's space next door, adding much more room for browsing, a larger children's section and lots of space to more adequately distribute the current stock. Yet there was barely any time to get rocking with the new set up; as with many other businesses, a few months of downtime created a harrowing situation. Employees had to be paid for the first month before getting furloughed. For a long time, Johnson worked by himself—with the cats—every day. A PPP loan and a GoFundMe endeavor both contributed to the store making it through to the reopening phase.

"I was pretty much the only person there for the first, I would say, more than a month-and-a-half," he said. "I had to do all the internet orders from all the collectibles and whatnot that we sell online, or out-of-print books—so I'd get to the store at 7am and try to get all those orders processed. And then by 10am I would try to be getting all the curbside orders done; and answering the phone; and finding the books that people were looking for."

Of course, a used bookstore presents an interesting set of parameters when it comes to reopening. Unlike a corner market, people often remain on the premises much longer. They often show up to browse with no particular goal in mind. That's the whole point. The journey—the adventure, the browsing—is more important than any need for a destination or a purpose; just like life itself. Recycle Bookstore is a sizable place compared to the public areas in a restaurant, yet rarely are there any more than 20 people inside the place at any given time. And unlike a restaurant, customers and employees don't need to repeatedly interact with each other up close. Patrons are left to their own accord. Employees can easily remain six feet away while directing someone to a section of the store.

In general, as the summer unfolds, people are going to be hungry for more out-of-home experiences. Everyone has different boundaries in terms of how much they feel safe while out in public during a pandemic. A used bookstore just might become one of the healthier options.

"People are not going to be traveling, so I think the bookstore is probably going to do pretty well, but I don't know that for sure," Johnson said. "People at least want to go out, and they want to go out safely, and a bookstore is a great place for that."