Owners Josh Niesse and Megan Bell of Underground Books, an independent bookstore located in Adamson Square, decided to make the tough decision to close their doors on March 15 due to the ongoing pandemic. Over the last seven months, they have been facing the complex challenges that come with running a business during a pandemic, but they have also had success during this time.
Niesse and Bell, along with their three part-time employees, have been operating Underground Books fully online since its closure. Underground Books had already been selling books online and in-person before the pandemic, so it was easily set up for the transition to become a fully online business.
Social media has been helping Underground Books stay connected with the community and its customers. Bell manages the store’s accounts and has used them to help drive sales by allowing people to buy books through Facebook and Instagram. Free and contactless delivery to customers in the Carrollton area is also being offered by the store.
Something that has been a challenge for Niesse and Bell is disappointing customers with the store’s closure. They said they have worked hard to make the in-person shopping experience enjoyable for their customers, and not being able to allow customers that experience over the past few months has been a difficult decision.
“Everyone has different comfort levels right now,” said Niesse. “Some people are comfortable shopping in person and some people want more contactless options, so navigating the different desires and needs of people right now is challenging.”
Niesse and Bell also own Hills & Hamlets Bookshop, which is Underground Books’ sister store located in the small community of Serenbe. Since Serenbe is a small community, Niesse and Bell have been able to recently start opening the Hills and Hamlets Bookshop’s doors on weekends to experiment with in-person operations. They have not announced the opening to the public yet because they want it to be a slow reopening. Quietly reopening Hills & Hamlets Bookshop has been successful so far, but they are still hesitant to reopen the Carrollton store.
“Serenbe is a much smaller community, so that store does not get nearly as busy as Underground Books,” said Niesse. “Underground Books might have 200 people come in on a busy Saturday, and that is a lot of people to have interaction with during a pandemic even if everyone is wearing masks.”
There are currently no concrete plans for Underground Books full reopening, but there are plans in the works to allow customers back into the store. Niesse and Bell are looking into launching in-person shopping by appointment with masks required. They will be announcing details for that soon through social media and email. Like all business owners, Niesse and Bell want their business to thrive and continue to operate, but they want to do it in a way that keeps their customers, the community and themselves safe.
“We love our regular customers and we don’t want to put them or their families at risk by fully reopening,” said Bell.
Something that Niesse and Bell have learned from the pandemic is how important fostering relationships with customers is. Throughout the course of the pandemic, they received many messages from customers asking how to support Underground Books during the pandemic.
“Seeing people intentionally go out of their way to support our store is heartwarming,” said Niesse. “We have really been relying on existing customer loyalty during this time.
“It is so important that we stress to ourselves that this is not a normal time,” said Bell. “I think a lot of businesses are focused on how to hunker down and survive this until we can get back to normal, and that’s what we’re focused on too.”