COVID-19 almost sank the Haines bookstore. A local author’s national fans saved sales

Author in a mask signing books with yellow covers.
Heather Lende signs her book inside The Bookstore in Haines. (The Bookstore via Facebook)

Between pandemic-related closures and a slow summer, a newly-opened bookstore in downtown Haines is among the retailers struggling to make ends meet. But when a local, nationally-acclaimed author released her latest title, book orders from fans kept the doors open and the shelves full.

Another shipment of Heather Lende’s books just arrived at Haines’ rural post office. Amy Kane owns the bookshop, called The Bookstore, here and it takes two trips to get all the boxes from her truck to her Main Street store.

“Oh, it’s huge,” she said, as she unwrapped a stack of yellow hardcovers.

Amy Kane unwraps a new shipment of Heather Lende’s latest novel in her Haines bookstore. August 9, 2020. (Claire Stremple/KHNS)

“This book almost has single hand—I mean, it’s, this book has definitely paid the bills for the whole summer for me, which has been fantastic.”

Kane opened in March, a week before the COVID-19 pandemic shut down retailers for months. She’d uprooted her life in Sitka and poured her savings into the Main Street shop. The months-long closure cut into her bottom line, and her applications for federal state and local relief funds were all rejected. Her brand new business doesn’t have 2019 tax returns, a mandatory piece of the applications. She couldn’t prove that she was losing money.

Local sales kept the lights on. But when Lende’s newest book was released in June, Kane’s phone started ringing with long distance calls. Lende’s fans were ordering books. Kane says the store would be withering without them.

“I would just be a place that whatever inventory I was lucky enough to start with, that’s all I would be doing. I wouldn’t be having new books in here, things wouldn’t be switching over. The volume of books would just be dwindling, you know, and then there would be empty shelves,” she said.

Lende’s books are the only ones she offers online.

The store is functioning, but it’s not the summer Kane envisioned. She was counting on thousands of summer tourists to augment local sales—Haines has a population of only about 2,500 people. But the pandemic effectively cancelled the cruise ship season and those tourists didn’t come.

“We’re supposed to be in Alaska right this minute,” said Arleen Talley, a recently retired librarian and Heather Lende fan. She and her husband booked a cruise that would have stopped in Haines this month. She’s on the phone from her home in Maryland.

“I like to support small businesses as much as I can. So what better place to order them than from Heather’s own hometown?”

Talley follows Lende’s blog. After Lende posted that readers could get signed and personalized books from the Haines bookstore, she made an order. So did readers from South Dakota, Oregon, and Nevada. Hundreds of them.

“I mean, I’m really grateful,” Lende said.

“I’m grateful that people are buying the book. I’m grateful that they want me to personalize it and I’m really, especially grateful that they’re choosing to buy it in  Haines and help out our little Main Street and economy and our bookstore.”

Lende guesses her blog has several thousand followers. Her book tour was cancelled due to the pandemic, so she’s been doing talks and readings from Haines via Zoom. Those talks are usually a boon for the bookstores, especially the Haines bookstore, so she hoped to offset that loss. She’s a small business owner herself—readers will know she and her husband own a lumber yard and hardware store in Haines—and she knew closures and restrictions affect business.

“I knew that especially during these COVID times, it would be challenging and then a lot of people might just go and order books online,” she said.

But she had no idea how big the response would be, or how much it would matter.

Back at the bookstore, Kane arranges some of the new Lende novels on a shelf next to the register. Foot traffic on Main Street is a little light this summer in Haines, but the bookstore is open and stocked. Kane secured a thousand dollars in relief money from the local government after she contested her rejection.

“Heather Lende pretty much saved the bookstore for the summer,” she said.

“And not just Heather, but her wonderful fans who are so sweet and kind and send lovely emails that include pictures sometimes or photos or stories about their life, or  they call in chat and talk about the time that they were in Haines. And I find all that really endearing.”

Through her books, Lende reaches out to readers across the nation and connects them to Haines. This pandemic summer, through her books, they reached back.

Since this story was reported, Kane says she received money from the state’s AK CARES program. She says it’s enough to keep the bookstore open through winter.