The Last Bookstore, which is known for its “Instagram-worthy” displays and whimsical labyrinths of bookshelves, used to have thousands of tourists cycle through each weekend.
Then, when COVID-19 hit and nonessential businesses were forced to halt operations, the two-story, 22,000-square-foot bookstore had to get creative to pay its “astronomical” rent, said the co-owner, Jenna Spencer. Because of the major financial setbacks, the owners had to lay off two-thirds of their staff.
“Everything completely stopped,” she said. “That doesn’t mean your bills stop. That doesn’t mean that people aren’t still looking for books, but it literally just came to a huge halt and it was a shock for everyone.”
The pandemic’s barriers created a major issue for the owners and their customers: People were stuck inside wanting books to occupy their time and the giant bookstore had copious amounts of inventory with no way to get it to them.
Then Spencer had the novel idea of creating curated book bundles for people that could be ordered online, where the reader fills out a questionnaire of their favorite authors, books and subjects and receives a stack of books picked out personally by the employees.
“Here we had zero business at all to overnight having thousands of orders that we were trying to fill,” said Spencer, saying many people waited patiently for three weeks to a month to get their order. “People felt like it was Christmas or something when they opened their mailbox.”
Readers can choose to be surprised or choose to approve the book bundles in advance. Most who chose to be surprised were extremely satisfied, Spencer said, adding that The Last Bookstore’s website has over 500 positive reviews on its bundles.
“We were all shocked by how successful they’ve been, and it’s all due to how knowledgeable our staff is,” Spencer said, mentioning how they were able to keep around 15 employees hired. “They’re really experts in the field here, and we’re so lucky to have them. Without that knowledge, we would not be able to do it—and no one could replicate it. Even an algorithm couldn’t replicate what these guys are able to do.”
It was beauatiful to be able to continue to thrive as a business while also reaching the customers, she added.
“That’s when we realized what a loyal customer base that we had, and it really made us appreciate our customers so much more,” she said. “It kept us alive for sure. We wouldn’t have survived otherwise.”
The store opened for in-person business again on June 15. As of now, the owners are focusing all their energy on finding ways to stay open as well as keeping their customers safe, Spencer said.
As a precautionary measure, they closed their book-buying counter, which Spencer said was unfortunate because that was a huge service for their community where they would buy books for cash or store credit. Any books that do enter the store are quarantined for three days before going to the main shelves, she said.
Other than the obvious precautionary measures, like social distancing, masks and limited occupancy, they implemented a $5 deposit upon entry. The money goes toward any purchase made in the store and can be saved for store credit.
The reasoning behind the deposit fee was to protect their book-buying customers from any extra potential exposure, she said, explaining that many people were coming in the store to take photos and putz around, which put other customers at risk.
The deposit fee also helps filter out those who give staff a hard time about requiring masks, she added. They started the precaution just before the major shutdown and decided to implement it again upon the reopening.
Spencer said she doesn’t know how long they’ll keep the $5 deposit rule, adding, “We don’t even know how long we’re able to stay open.”
Another creative idea the owners implemented was renting their space after hours for “micro” weddings, birthdays and anniversary parties as well as photoshoots for authors and wedding engagements.
Those who want to live their fantasy bookstore wedding can eat their wedding meal on a large farm table set up in the middle of the store, filled with food, flowers and decor organized by the events coordinator, Spencer said.
“We’ve been able to open up our store a lot more than we were able to in the past,” she said. “It’s so beautiful, and it’s just such a unique time that we might not be able to do that forever.”
The Last Bookstore started in 2005 out of a DTLA loft and later grew into its location in the Spring Arts Tower.
Spencer, who is the store’s co-owner and director, has been working in the bookstore and behind the scenes for the past year and a half after transitioning from the beauty world of celebrity nails. After accomplishing everything she had sought out to do in that industry and remaining president of her company, she said it has been fulfilling to put her energy in the bookstore.
“The bookstore is perfect for me,” she said. “I’m so happy to be involved in all the ways that I am, whether it’s helping a customer find a book or heading up a completely new service that we’re offering. So it’s been very exciting, but Josh—he’s really the hero of the whole store.”
She and the original store owner, Josh Spencer, married in December. He takes the time to sort through all the books, deciding which ones go to the store and which ones are sold online. They also donate books to homeless shelters and the neighborhood book boxes called Little Free Library.
“It’s not just about wanting people to buy; we want to give as much as people give to us,” she said.