Small Biz Saturday: Nicola’s Books fulfills increased demand during COVID-19 pandemic

Collections of books available at Nicola's Books are regularly posted on its Facebook and other social media pages. Photo from the Nicola's Books Facebook page. (Nicola's Books)

ANN ARBOR – Approaching its 25th birthday, Nicola’s Books is known as a townie go-to spot for books and book-related events on the west side of Ann Arbor. 

Even with its doors closed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the community favorite made sure customers had something to read. 

First named Little Professor, the independent bookstore in the Westgate Shopping Complex was rebranded to Nicola’s Books after it was purchased by Nicola Rooney in 1995.

Now owned by Schuler Books, who bought it from Rooney in 2014, Nicola’s Books has been fulfilling orders, organizing virtual events and adapting to changes and challenges.

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In March, Nicola’s Books had to shut its doors to the public. Alana Haley, the marketing coordinator for Schuler Books, said that very few people were allowed into the bookstore. Those who were allowed, like managers and some employees, would try to fulfill orders that the bookstore couldn’t fulfill through its warehouses. 

Over the course of the pandemic, demand for online sales grew dramatically. Haley said that website traffic double and tripled when the store was online-only and that the influx in traffic has stayed consistent. 

Nicola’s Books also began selling puzzles, gift boxes and hosting virtual events, like webinars with authors, workshops, storytimes and book previews. 

Haley said the online events feel intimate and very personal. Participants can ask questions to authors from the comfort of their own homes and the talks are moderated by a staff member. 

Nicolas’s Books is also finding inventive ways of getting customers signed copies of books from their favorite authors. While some authors, like Michigan author Kim Harrison, are able to come into to sign copies when the Ann Arbor store is closed, others are sending signed stickers or bookplates. 

While gatherings are allowed in Michigan, Haley said that events will likely stay online through the end of the year. Small in-person events might be possible, but they will be considered on a case-by-case basis. 

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Once Nicola’s Books was able to open its doors to customers, Haley said that the bookstore, and its owning company, took numerous precautions to keep everyone safe. 

Now up to 20 customers are allowed in the store at one time. They are welcomed by a greeter at the front door who counts the number of people in coming and going. The greeter also ensures that everyone is wearing a mask and offers hand sanitizer.

Employees wear masks and fill out routine health questionnaires.

Since it’s hard to judge a book by its cover, drop tables have been placed throughout the store for customers to place books that they won’t be purchasing. Books will then be sanitized with UV wands. 

Plexiglass screens have also been installed by the cash registers and different doors are used to enter and exit the store. 

From helping with online orders to curbside services and now to in-person shopping, Haley said that she has been amazed by how well staff have been able to continue a high quality of customer service and creativity despite constantly changing needs. 

“I just have to give our staff so much credit for being super creative and super flexible,” Haley said. “I think our proudest thing is that we’ve never sacrificed our customer service this whole time.”  She said that even if staff couldn’t interact with customers in-person, they responded through social media.

“Through all of the changes we’ve gone through, they [staff] have just really maintained that level of customer service that we are proud to provide and that, kind of, people expected from us.” She joked that staff were so helpful that it’s likely customers didn’t realize the difficulties they might have fulfilling orders or acquiring a certain item. 

Haley said that Nicola’s Books sends out a weekly newsletter to customers explaining its safety procedures on for processes orders and what to expect from in-store visits.

She said that Nicola’s Books will celebrate its 25th birthday in some fashion but doesn’t yet know what that will look like. 

Nicola’s Books curbside service available from 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. daily. It is at 2513 Jackson Ave.

About the Author:

Sarah has worked for WDIV since June 2018. She covers community events, good eats and small businesses in Ann Arbor and has a Master's degree in Applied Linguistics from Grand Valley State University.