PROVO — While many local bookstores are relying on donations and fundraisers in the hopes of staying afloat during the pandemic, Pioneer Book, a staple of the Provo community for the past 40 years, is doing better than it has ever done.
Store management told KSL that the community has gotten them through with donations, and sales have actually gone up since the pandemic started.
"I never felt too worried. We've got a great customer base," said Ethan Unklesbay, store manager at Pioneer Book. "Movie theaters are shut down, sports venues, concert venues. People are rediscovering books and reading with the extra hours they have in a day."
After asking for some donations back in March, Unklesbay said the store received more than they ever could have expected.
Right around this time, Deseret Industries and many other thrift stores were closed to donations. Instead, people dropped off boxes and boxes of used books at Pioneer Book's front door, or carloads of books curbside.
This community connection is something that Pioneer Book values above all else. Rather than trying to keep pace with the trends, they stick with classics — books that have always been good — that they know their customers will appreciate.
"Independent bookstores get an opportunity to represent local people in a way that a big chain doesn't," Unklesbay said. "We have to curate what we have to sell to the people that live here, which means you have to care about the community and really know the people."
Like other local independent bookstores who have made it through the pandemic successfully, the staff took time to recheck inventory, take phone orders and deliver curbside. However, they didn't have an option for shopping online.
"Luckily, we have great employees who are good at pivoting and adapting," Unklesbay said.
People should order books however they can get them, but I don’t think there’s any way to replicate physical browsing online. It’s a sensory experience relying on smell and colors. Just being here, something’s going to jump out at you.
–Ethan Unklesbay, Pioneer Book store manager
Within two weeks, the employees had managed to open an online store by early April. They were also able to get a loan from a local credit union to keep them running until they could open with safety precautions.
Although there was not a city or countywide mask mandate at the time, when the store opened back up, management put a personal mask mandate in place. The store currently has a capacity limit of 20 people or fewer, and they provide masks and hand sanitizer for customers.
Utah County has had a history of controversy regarding masks, including anti-mask protests in both Provo and Orem. But Unklesbay said that Pioneer Book customers have largely been cooperative, allowing for safe in-person browsing — the magic of independent bookstores.
"People should order books however they can get them, but I don't think there's any way to replicate physical browsing online," Unklesbay said. "It's a sensory experience relying on smell and colors. Just being here, something's going to jump out at you."
That experience is something that will be lost if independent bookstores across the country close, he continued.
"It would be a tragedy," he said. "Working in a bookstore is so unique. A book will come through the desk, and it will be about a topic that I didn't even know existed. There's an entire world outside I wasn't even aware of."