How to get books, ebooks in Denver during coronavirus shutdown

When Len Vlahos and Kristen Gilligan made the wrenching decision earlier this week to put most of their 160 full- and part-time employees on temporary unpaid leave, it came with the knowledge that they are not alone.

“In our business, the retailer doesn’t set the price, the vendor does, so we’re already a low-margin operation. As such, most indie book stores don’t have the resources to ride this out,” said Vlahos, co-owner of the Tattered Cover bookstores. “For us this is devastating, but we are closed for a public heath reason and are doing the best we can to serve our customers remotely.”

From canceled author readings to lost revenue and visitors amid a government-ordered shutdown, bookstores and libraries are struggling to stay connected to their audiences during the coronavirus pandemic, which has closed most gathering spots indefinitely.

But bookstores and, to a lesser extent, libraries are especially odd ducklings during this wave of disruption, given not only their financial models but also their focus on the quiet, patient pleasures of reading over fast profit or relentless growth.

As Amazon has proven, a digital company can become a bookseller even without a store. But most companies lack the resources and scale of that behemoth, forcing them to get creative.

Tattered Cover still has something to offer beyond the experience of browsing its stacks, Vlahos said. The company is offering free shipping on orders of $10 or more — that’s pretty much everything in the store these days — as well as curbside pickup at its Littleton and East Colfax Avenue locations (UPDATE: curbside pickup has been canceled during Mayor Michael Hancock’s stay-at-home order) while encouraging donations to help it stay afloat during the deeply uncertain months ahead.

Denver’s BookBar, which is taking a double-hit since it is also a wine bar, and Boulder Book Store are following similar paths, offering alley-side pickup, online ordering and free shipping in addition to providing limited phone hours for orders and staff recommendations.

The flipside, of course, is that books were one of the first mediums to be hit hard by digitization in the 2000s. In 2020, a wealth of reading material is available online, and libraries are counting on that to stay relevant over the next few months.

“As we all adjust to ‘the new normal,’ our staff is working diligently to create innovative ways to deliver our beloved services virtually to the community,” said Michelle Jeske, city librarian for the Denver Public Library system. “Libraries are one of the few remaining public spaces that serve as community hubs where all people can gather to connect and explore. The library’s closure impacts both our community and our staff.”

That staff — 740 full-time, part-time and on-call employees serving 26 locations plus mobile services like bookmobiles — is now geared toward helping homebound people connect to DPL’s considerable stockpile of written, audio and visual material.

After registering for a library card online, Denver residents can download ebooks and audio ebooks, stream movies via the impressively curated Kanopy service (also free), stream or download local music on Volume, get picture books from Bookflix, and browse new magazines with RBdigital.

In the coming weeks, Denver Public Library also hopes to use its website and social media channels to promote virtual storytimes and virtual programming for children and adults, in addition to already-available services like live chats with staff.

Those should help make up for the loss of in-person programming, which draws about 540,000 people across 28,000 Denver Public Library programs each year, Jekse said, amid an estimated 4 million annual visitors — an average of 10,000 per day — system-wide.

That’s because Jeske was already tracking an average of 17,000 daily visitors to DPL’s online portals, and that number is only expected to grow across all public library systems.

Elsewhere, Douglas County Libraries are waiving late fines and extending due dates and holds on physical books while pushing free audio-guided workouts, crafting classes and online learning, said Amber DeBerry, director of community engagement.

The 168 full- and part-time employees at Anythink Libraries, who serve Adams County and saw more than 1 million visitors at its seven branches in 2019, are also stepping up their offerings to meet the new reality.

“We are the place where people physically go when they don’t have somewhere else to go,” said Stacie Ledden, director of strategic partnerships for the Anythink system, which last year welcomed more than 1 million visitors. “Our challenge now is helping people understand that it doesn’t have to be a physical space that we are all connected to.”

Live Facebook events and staff-made baking demos (scheduled to launch next week) are keeping employees busy while all the usual library offerings (ebooks, digital concert archives, magazines, video content) are available now — with more to come.

“We can also use our resources to connect people in other ways,” Ledden said. “We’re on a task force with Tri-County Health and Adams County looking at how to support seniors during this time, and we’ve been on the phone with people where jobs and volunteers are needed right now. People who follow us on social media or sign up for our email blasts are going to get that information. We can connect them.”

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