How A Good Used Book’s LA Pop-Ups Survived COVID-19
On a sweltering July afternoon in South Gate, a sky blue freight truck emblazoned with Amazon Prime’s smiley arrow rolls out of the ReadySpaces loading bay. Moments later, Chris Capizzi, the 39-year-old co-founder of A Good Used Book, greets me in the warehouse parking lot. As we navigate the corrugated iron maze, forklifts roam the halls like go-karts. Capizzi and his wife and business partner, Jenny Yang, 38, work here quietly in a 400 square foot space – sorting, cleaning, cataloging, photographing, organizing and packing as many books as two people can do in a day. .
“You can never walk away from Amazon,” Capizzi said later when the three of us gathered in one of ReadySpaces’ conference rooms. It is the lament of all booksellers, but no one has had such a difficult year, so anti-Bézosienne, as A good second-hand book.
Capizzi and Yang’s business model actually grew out of a negative experience with Amazon. After failing to sell quality books through Amazon’s Fulfillment Program, they designed A Good Used Book as a traveling pop-up store specializing in well-packaged vintage paperbacks. By 2019, they had become a mainstay of several LA flea markets and the downtown Grand Central Market, with wine crates full of vibrant, rarely seen blankets that readers could flip through like used records.
On July 30, A Good Used Book hosted its first pop-up since March 2020 at Verve Coffee in the Arts District, starting a residency in August from Friday to Monday. COVID cases are on the rise and indoor mask warrants are back, but the books will be set up on Verve’s lush patio. It’s a modest but momentous reopening for a company that has weathered the boom in the pandemic – plummeting sales, a tough digital hub, unnecessary government programs, massive auto theft and even some industrial espionage.
As The Times reported in a profile last April, A Good Used Book was thriving before COVID. The couple’s 1999 Chevy Astro minivan carried around 1,600 pounds in pop-ups around town, and they were planning to expand and purchase a second van. When it became clear that non-essential businesses wouldn’t reopen for months, they had to decide whether to stop or double down. Bet on their success has been the hardest thing they’ve ever done.
Owners switched to digital selling first – three per week via Instagram (now reduced to one) – swap the grueling work of hauling thousands of pounds for the madness of competing in a virtual space dominated by Amazon.
“When you’re a small business, every little change is a big deal,” says Yang. “We should regroup, make the transition again. There were days when it was really, really hard. But there were a lot of days when people came to help us and bought a lot of books. “
Now, as the Delta variant spreads, the future looks precarious. “The hardest part of the pandemic has been not being able to see a week ahead, not being able to make plans,” says Capizzi. “Right now, as we’re starting to feel the way we can, it’s starting to look and be a little scary. ” Still.
At least now they have a fully loaded website. According to a June report from the American Booksellers Assn., Bookstores using their proprietary e-commerce platforms increased 360% from the same week in 2019. Instead of using these platforms , A Good Used Book decided to go it alone. .
Capizzi and Yang sold books from their inventory on Instagram during the height of the pandemic while they were building the website on Shopify. But creating three sales a week on Instagram stories took double-shift days – with editorial and other help from their one employee, Sarah Bofenkamp, who now works remotely from Washington state. Now that their website is up and running, they are still learning best practices when it comes to metadata and SEO.
“The physical is so much easier because you somehow understand that people are coming from the streets or for coffee or that you are already at the flea market,” says Yang. “But with the Internet… you are always looking for these little problems. “
It wasn’t the worst. Capizzi and Yang tried unsuccessfully to obtain government grants, loans and unemployment checks. Then, in May, someone stole the Chevy Astro, which contained the tables and crates for their pop-ups. At this point, Instagram book sales weren’t enough to cover expenses. While several physical libraries have started GoFundMe campaigns to stay afloat, Capizzi and Yang turned to their parents for financial help. This year, they finally got a disaster loan from the Small Business Administration.
Even though they were struggling financially, Capizzi and Yang needed to find books for future sales and maintain supplier relationships, which meant they still had to do a lot of the physical scrambling. In September, they crossed flames and smoke from the El Dorado fire in a storage unit in Beaumont where they sorted grocery bags and boxes overflowing with books to separate the virgin from the warped and waterlogged ones.
Late last year, A Good Used Book accidentally reconnected with a San Diego source whose family runs a business selling books on – where else? – Amazon. This source briefly rented a ReadySpaces storage unit in Chatsworth, which inspired Capizzi and Yang to move out of their cramped U-Haul storage sheds in Atwater.
But when they got to Chatsworth, new Amazon-affiliated booksellers settled on either side of A Good Used Book. A neighbor harassed Capizzi and Yang about their supplier in San Diego. Eventually they gave in and the seller sold books to the neighbor. Soon after, the seller found a tracker on his car, called the police on Amazon sellers – fearing they wanted to steal their inventory – and left Chatsworth. Capizzi and Yang followed suit, moving overnight to South Gate.
The new headquarters is a big improvement over their old digs in Atwater Village where they worked in daylight with no electricity or Wi-Fi. They have more and better shelves and spaces to wrap books under. plastic wrap and photograph them for web sales. Several shelves also feature the latest addition to A Good Used Book’s inventory: New Books.
The new product line was born out of the other major change of 2020, the recognition of racism after the murder of George Floyd and the rise of attacks on the AAPI community. In search of used books to celebrate Black History Month and Asian Heritage Month, Capizzi and Yang, both Asian Americans, have come up against the historic racial biases of the industry. ‘editing. The profit margins of the new books are slimmer and their purchase puts the company in direct competition with Amazon, but they are committed to selling diverse books.
“For us, it was really important to have different voices and perspectives,” Yang said. “We realized that we wouldn’t have to trust the books we find every week and that we could say a little more.”
The deal with Verve Coffee was a godsend, but it only came after months of unsuccessful planning for another location. This spring, the couple had lengthy discussions with Grand Central Market about creating an independent, semi-permanent pop-up. Capizzi drew up rough plans, consulted an architect, and found someone to fabricate the structure. Ultimately, Grand Central turned them down.
Fortunately, A Good Used Book has had positive meetings with Verve’s regional manager, Alexis Bolter, as well as a strong “corporate mentor-type” relationship with Matt Moreno, the director of the Arts District location. Verve. Moreno describes A Good Used Book’s pre-COVID pop-ups at Verve as “mutually beneficial.” If all goes well in August, Capizzi and Yang hope to rent out the vacant showroom above Verve later in the year, move South Gate operations there, and even host events. Moreno is optimistic about their plans.
“I dream of knocking down the wall that separates our space from the living room [that’s there] now and to have A Good Used Book set up there to create a full showroom / storefront for them, ”explains Moreno,“ so that the two companies can exist and prosper together. Who doesn’t like to sit down and read a good second-hand book with a great cup of coffee? “
A few weeks before their Verve reopened, Capizzi and Yang were cautiously optimistic. If finances and rent allow, they eventually consider a physical store. For now, they are content to continue charting the future of independent millennial booksellers.
“If we can get beaten to this point by COVID and still be optimistic coming out of the line, I think we have a good chance of getting there,” Capizzi said. “I don’t know if we’ve been through the worst, but we’ve been through some pretty tough times—…. We haven’t broken up. We still find books and sell them weekly. And we are always trying to improve it.
Bell is a journalist and writer from Santa Monica.