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As Local Bookstores Fight To Stay Afloat, One Brooklyn Shop Persists Through Strategy, Resilience

During the pandemic, online retail giant Amazon doubled profits and added thousands of jobs across the country.

But it's also squeezing out smaller retailers that just can’t compete.

Even before COVID-19, indie booksellers were struggling to match Amazon’s competitive pricing. It’s a challenge that Kalima Desuze, owner of Cafe con Libros, a feminist bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, knows well.

Desuze, who opened Cafe con Libros in 2017 while keeping another full-time job and becoming a mom, says she would receive emails from folks saying her books were too expensive — even when she was selling classic novels, new releases and best sellers at 10% less than the manufacturer suggested retail price.

She searched for some of her books on Amazon and found the e-commerce company was marketing the same title for 40% off — a discount she says she would never be able to compete with.

Bookstores across the country are feeling the weight of Amazon's impossible deals, she says. Amazon's "decisions on how they're pricing has direct material impacts on small independent bookstores, who if even if we banded together, we could never compete," she says.

Amazon is more than a book service — the company created 175,000 new jobs since March to keep up with the demand of online ordering during the coronavirus pandemic. While the massive job creation is a positive, the company shouldn't be threatening small, independent bookstores when they have "many other platforms" and means to make a profit, she says.

"They don’t need to be our biggest competitor," Desuze says. "There should be a level of sensitivity and knowing around what it means to sell a book and knowing what it means that the book is the only way we make our money."

Like many small businesses, Desuze's bookstore and coffee shop was hit hard by the pandemic. She says she's been channeling her income from her full-time job into the store to keep it alive.

At the beginning of the business shutdowns, profits brought in from the bookstore's cafe halted and forced her to "pivot in very strategic, intentional ways to meet the needs and demands of the community." That meant getting scrappy with selling coffee and books online while reminding readers and coffee consumers that investing their money in Cafe con Libros was worthwhile.

The store "upped the ante" on their monthly $20 book subscription called "Feminist & Bookish" where books are mailed directly to the reader's home. While the bookshop "barely makes any money" off of the subscription service, it has grown by the hundreds since its inception in January, she says.

Cafe con Libros provides for the community in ways that Amazon cannot — one of them being an inclusive sanctuary of affirmation "for women and girls across race, class, gender, age, sexuality, sexual presentation," she says. Shelves are lined with books written by women for women.

The bookstore also supplies community space to "talk politics across differences," she says, in order to learn, grow and deepen relationships.

And because of those community ties and investments, Desuze is confident that her beloved bookstore will pull through these difficult economic times. As a Black business owner, she points to the "bittersweet" support received over the summer when Black Lives Matter protests picked up around the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

"We hate the fact that our bookstores are now thriving, some of us are thriving, because Breonna Taylor and because of George Floyd, that another Black body had to be laid to rest so that folks can wake up," she says.

A portion of that money will be reinvested in the community and another part tucked away in case of another COVID-19 resurgence and lockdown, she says.

Desuze is prepared for whatever may happen next and is willing to fight to keep Cafe con Libros afloat. She's an Army veteran, after all, and "we don't give up," she says.

Cristina Kim produced and edited this interview for broadcast with Todd Mundt. Serena McMahon adapted it for the web.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

The American Booksellers Association has launched an advertising campaign against Amazon to alert the public to what it calls the growing danger that book stores are under from the online goliath during the coronavirus pandemic. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)
The American Booksellers Association launched an advertising campaign against Amazon to alert the public to what it calls the growing danger that book stores are under from the online goliath during the coronavirus pandemic. (Nicholas Kamm/AFP/Getty Images)