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How New Detroit Bookstores Forged Community Ties to Survive After the Pandemic

by SaMya Overall, Outlier Media

A large group of smiling people look at the camera from between the shelves of a spacious high-ceilinged bookstore.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Erin and Drew Pineda
27th Letter Books owners Erin and Drew Pineda hosted an event for Rising Voices with state Sen. Stephanie Chang, authors Curtis Chin and Jack Cheng, and educators Angela Chen and Richard Mui. Photo credit: Courtesy of Erin and Drew Pineda

“What we strive to do is not only be a place where you can come buy books, but a place where you can share your own story,” said Drew Pineda, co-owner of 27th Letter Books.

This story was originally published by Outlier Media, a groundbreaking nonprofit newsroom designed to center and respond to Detroiters’ needs.

When Detroit Specials Used Books opened in July 2020, there was no grand opening party. There were no customers perusing the stacks and pulling out books to purchase. There were no crowds of people lining up outside the gray building on John R Street with the rainbow flag next to the door.

Aside from a few customers who became regulars, the North End bookstore stayed empty, with books stacked on whatever surfaces owner Dora Badger could manage.

“This place was just folding tables with boxes of books on top and a handful of shelves that I brought from home,” Badger said. “It was a little chaotic.”

Walking through the front door today, there’s more cluttered calm than chaos. Books line the shelves and are stacked on tables, serving as landing pads for the kittens Badger is fostering. The store smells like old books: nostalgic and inviting, as a bookstore should be.

The COVID-19 pandemic shutdowns may seem like a lifetime ago, but for bookstore owners in Detroit, it marked a lasting period of financial uncertainty in an already uncertain industry. Customers stayed home to avoid spreading the virus, held onto the little money they had, and, if they did shop, favored online retail, something not all independent bookstores could offer.

An average of about one independent bookstore closed each week nationwide during the first year of the pandemic. Many others downsized, cut staff or moved to strictly online sales. For the bookstores that did survive, business looked different than before. 

With lockdown restrictions in the rearview mirror and a busy holiday shopping season in full swing, bookstores that opened at the height of the pandemic are beginning to overcome the effects of having fewer people out and about. After adapting during a period of precariousness, they continue to foster community while keeping the lights on.

Launching a Business When No One was Shopping

Detroit Specials delayed its planned April 2020 opening for three months, and Badger said it took another six months to start seeing regular customers. In the meantime, Badger shifted from setting up the physical store to delivering its used books, hand-delivering up to four books a week to customers in Detroit and shipping another 10-15 more.

A person in a black shirt and long curly brown hair holds a small black and white cat staring into the camera.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dora Badger
Dora Badger, owner of Detroit Specials Used Books, donates to rescue organizations and fosters kittens in the used bookstore. Photo credit: Courtesy of Dora Badger

“It took a little to ramp up,” they said. “It was rough getting the word out.”

Badger said the store was losing a lot of money when it opened. They aimed to cover around 50-75% of business expenses from revenue alone in the first year. Revenue only covered around 25% of expenses in the first few months, though that steadily increased to 85% by the end of 2021.

Things turned for the better in the last two years. Badger said they can regularly cover business expenses this year, even though there isn’t much left over afterward. Badger was able to pay themself their modest first paycheck from Detroit Specials in July.

“We’ve always had reasonably steady traffic,” Badger said. “We’ve started to hit our stride this year. It can take a few years for word to get out for small businesses, but this year, we’ve started to see the kind of traffic that we’re hoping to see.”

Co-owners Erin and Drew Pineda opened 27th Letter Books in 2019 as a pop-up because they had trouble finding a brick-and-mortar space. In January 2020, armed with a $100,000 Comerica Hatch Detroit grant, they started searching for a permanent location in earnest. Then the pandemic hit.

The husband-and-wife duo did some online sales for 27th Letter Books during the first months of the pandemic. However, Erin Pineda said much of their progress was stalled: The bookstore wasn’t eligible for many pandemic-related grants because it didn’t have a building. Although the store received some local grants, 27th Letter Books closed while the owners worked other jobs.

The Pinedas eventually opened their brick-and-mortar store in the Chadsey Condon neighborhood in June 2021, an airy and homey space with seating for kids and adults to read, and a coffee bar.

“It was definitely a situation of being in limbo,” Erin Pineda said. “We kept things going with a little bit of an online presence, and we were still in the background looking for permanent locations … but it was also a lot to juggle.”

27th Letter Books still needs to grow before the shop’s revenue exceeds its expenses, the duo said. Even post-pandemic, they’ve worked full-time jobs outside the shop at different times over the years to supplement income.

Two tiered tables with white table clothes hosts a spread of classic novels with graphic covers and other novels wrapped in brown paper packaging.
Photo Credit: SaMya Overall
Alcott’s Attic sells mystery book bundles as holiday gifts — the book under the wrapping paper is a surprise. Photo credit: SaMya Overall

For Christina LeFleur, surviving the first years of the pandemic as a new business owner meant avoiding a permanent space altogether. LeFleur launched the bookstore Alcott’s Attic in Colorado in 2020. She brought the store with her when she moved to Michigan in spring 2021, popping up at events around metro Detroit. This July, she finally opened Alcott’s as a semi-permanent pop-up in the Fisher Building.

LeFleur said profits were low in Alcott’s Attic’s first years but have increased steadily since, and she said the business is now profitable.

During the pandemic, Alcott’s Attic partnered with Wisconsin-based bookstore River Dog Book Co. to create the Reading Women Leaders book club. It also partnered with The Bookshop Band, a U.K. band that writes songs about books and plays, for a lockdown show to keep Alcott’s Attic a community space for book lovers.

“It was a lot of bookstores partnering together to still provide events online,” LeFleur said. “Just doing a lot of fun things and bringing them online to keep people engaged.”

’Tis the Season For Gifts, Deals and Increased Sales

The holidays tend to be a large revenue-driver for brick-and-mortar businesses. 

This trend was true even during the pandemic. The category of retail establishments in the U.S. that includes bookstores, as well as sporting goods, hobby and musical instrument stores, saw spikes in sales in November and December in 2021 and 2022, according to census data. Online ordering has driven sales, with indie bookstores seeing approximately a 159% increase in items sold online from pre-pandemic numbers last November and December, according to the American Booksellers Association. 

Drew Pineda said 27th Letter Books has had increased sales during the holidays. During the season, the bookstore holds weekly book events, ranging from author talks to community workshops. It also offers discounts on select titles to members of the shop’s Ampersand Book Club

“We have to figure out creative ways to bring people into the store — so that when they’re in the store, we can say, ‘It’s the holidays. You can get a gift for somebody,’” Drew Pineda said. “That’s been our big focus, so we do see an uptick.” 

Badger said Detroit Specials’ revenue has mostly stayed consistent throughout the year, with small peaks in October and late November that Badger attributes to holiday shopping. However, they said this is the shop’s first normal holiday season. After the pandemic, the store suffered some bad plumbing issues in late 2021 that kept it closed during the holidays and Google removed Detroit Specials from its search results in 2022, meaning would-be shoppers couldn’t easily find the store online.

“We’ve had a real bad run with our holidays,” Badger said. “It’ll be nice to finally have a holiday season we’ve been hoping for the past three years.”

A black and white image of a person with bangs and glasses and a winter coat and plaid scarf below a sign reading "Alcott's Attic" on a city street with string lights overhead.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Christina LeFleur
Christina LeFleur opened bookstore pop-up Alcott’s Attic in 2020 and currently has space in the Fisher Building. Photo credit: Courtesy of Christina LeFleur

The store does a “book flood” during the last two weeks of December, inspired by the Icelandic tradition where people gift books and spend time reading together. Detroit Specials offers a 25% discount on everything in the store during the event.

LeFleur said that the revenue of Alcott’s Attic likewise stays consistent throughout the year. Since being in the Fisher Building, she said most of the store’s foot traffic comes from theatergoers.

Alcott’s Attic also sells book-inspired purses, scarves, toys and clothes, which LeFleur said are popular during the holidays. The store’s wrapped book bundles — where buyers can only read an excerpt of the book without seeing its cover or contents before buying — are especially popular and exclusive to holiday time.

Growing into community space

Strategic pivots and special sales may help Detroit’s new booksellers keep the lights on, but for lasting sustainability, they’re focusing on creating ties in their communities and adapting to their neighbors’ needs.

Badger still has health issues since having COVID-19, and sometimes has to abruptly close the store to tend to their health. They said the North End community has been understanding about unexpected closures, and their neighbors continue to shop and spread the word.

“It’s been really heartening … to know that people are rooting for us,” Badger said.

“We’re just trying to be a place where people can have that artistic expression within this independent bookstore.”

Drew Pineda, co-owner of 27th Letter Books
A stack of books on a table outside underneath a colorful banner reading "Used & New Books For The Whole Family." Two stacked car tires, one blue and one green, converted into a planter are in the foreground.
Photo Credit: SaMya Overall
Detroit Specials Used Books in the North End hosts a “book flood” in the last two weeks of December to connect the local book-loving community. Photo credit: SaMya Overall

Detroit Specials also occasionally fosters cats and donates money to local rescue organizations like Detroit Dog Rescue and Home FurEver.

27th Letter Books, which hosts frequent free events and offers a large selection of Spanish-language books, has been intentional about serving its neighbors. Drew and Erin Pineda, who moved to Detroit before the store’s founding, said they’ve felt welcome here, specifically in Southwest Detroit. Drew Pineda said that reading and writing is what got him through his cancer diagnosis in 2014, and starting a bookstore in Detroit was the best way to honor that.

“What we strive to do is not only be a place where you can come buy books, but a place where you can share your own story,” Drew Pineda said. “We’re just trying to be a place where people can have that artistic expression within this independent bookstore.”

The Southwest Detroit community has supported the owners before. About a year after opening, 27th Letter Books was the victim of credit card fraud. After starting a fundraiser to avoid closing, the shop raised over $35,000 within 10 days.

Even though they are few, Detroit’s local bookstores are becoming more of a staple for their neighborhoods and the city as a whole. These stores join other local bookshops like Source BooksellersPages BookstoreJohn K. King Books and Hamtramck’s Book Suey, along with newly opened Next Chapter Books and upcoming Vesper Books & Wine, which is expected to open in spring 2024.

“Detroit is one of the most creative places I’ve ever lived,” Erin Pineda said. “So I chuckle because, yes, it’s a challenge and it’s an uphill battle … but what keeps me going is that I know there are so many brilliant minds, creative minds, artistic minds in this city, and being able to support that and keep that foundation in Detroit is really important. That’s why I think, ultimately, we’ll be able to continue being here.”