At one of New York's most popular bookstores, virtual events offered a pandemic lifeline - but they also lacked the same thrill as in-person events

At one of New York's most popular bookstores, virtual events offered a pandemic lifeline - but they also lacked the same thrill as in-person events
Sales via virtual events were uneven, said the Strand's event's director. Mary Altaffer/AP Photo
  • New York City's Strand Bookstore restarted in-person events but will also keep some online.
  • As events shifted online last year due to the pandemic, competition with Amazon intensified.
  • But online events lack the excitement of an in-person event, said Sabir Sultan, events director.

Like many independent booksellers, Strand Bookstore in Manhattan last year switched to virtual author events, which allowed for larger audiences but also came with new challenges, including competition from Amazon.

"At the end of the day, virtual events are great but they lack the excitement of an in-person event," Sabir Sultan, the store's events director, said.

Now, as New York City slowly reopens, the store has again begun hosting authors, with a limited schedule in August and September. It's also requiring proof of vaccination from authors and attendees.

"That said, we've learned to be flexible," Sultan said. "For all in-person events we have booked or are booking, we are prepared to switch to a virtual format."

As COVID-19 lockdowns spread last year, book sales spiked. NPD Group estimated that sales for the year climbed about 8%, with overall holiday sales growing 12%.


But those sales weren't uniform for independent stores. Publishers Weekly reported in January that one store's sales jumped 50%, while another's slipped 43%. Strand ownership launched a campaign to save the bookstore, asking loyal customers for help.

Sales via virtual events were uneven, Sultan said.

Those events weren't able to replicate a few of the most important elements of an in-store event. Attendees often choose to buy a book and get it signed on the spot, giving them a chance for a one-on-one moment with the author.

But at home customers might instead choose whichever seller could deliver the lowest price. With a few clicks, shoppers could buy the same book from Amazon or some other big box store, Sultan said.

Well-known authors brought in book sales comparable with in-person events over the last year. But lesser-known authors were less successful in driving online sales.


"With smaller authors, audiences look forward to the intimacy of an in-person event at a bookstore, so encouraging them to engage online is hard," Sultan said.

Aside from sales figures, virtual events have had a positive impact on the business for many booksellers. Those events were able to bring together authors and interviewers who live far apart. They made it easier for small retailers to host large gatherings. And they helped in regards to scheduling international authors, who wouldn't have to bother with flights or hotels.

Like other bookstores, Strand sees a future with a mix of online and in-person events.

"We've also noticed a certain amount of fatigue with virtual events," Sultan said. "As soon as restrictions began lifting, attendance started dipping."