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Nigeria Is Fighting Its Own Battle Against Police Brutality



Abdullah Abdulsalam was on his way home from a writing workshop in Oyo State, Nigeria in May when an unmarked car pulled his bus over. The car, he quickly learned, was occupied by police officers in Nigeria’s Special Anti-Robbery Squad, also known as SARS. 

As the youngest passenger, the 23-year-old was singled out. “They checked my phones, Gmail, WhatsApp, Facebook, and Freelancer,” he told VICE News. “They didn’t find anything incriminating.” According to Abdulsalam, the officers then told the driver to leave. Though Abdulsalam “told them [he was] a writer and media person,” they insisted that he was a “cybercriminal.” 

“One officer said that if I don’t bribe my way, he’ll kill me and nothing will happen,” Abdulsalam said. He eventually acquiesced, and they drove him to an ATM nearby, where the officers subsequently drained his bank account. (SARS unit spokespeople did not reply to requests for comment.)

Despite the theft and resulting trauma, Abdulsalam knows that he was lucky. “I might have been killed,” he said. He’s not wrong: What happened to Abdullah has happened to many other Nigerians. Over the last three years, Amnesty International has documented 82 cases of torture, abuse, and extrajudicial executions conducted by SARS officers. In 2016, Amnesty International documented 143 complaints made against SARS officers in less than six months. According to their most recent report, survivors of run-ins with the unit, usually youths, have experienced “mock execution, beating, punching and kicking, burning with cigarettes, waterboarding, near-asphyxiation with plastic bags, forcing detainees to assume stressful bodily positions and sexual violence.” 

After years of abuse, young Nigerians are speaking out against SARS and police brutality through Nigeria’s largest demonstrations in almost a decade. Protests began on October 5 after a young man was shot and killed by SARS officers the day prior in Ughelli, a town in the southern state of Delta, and accounts of the shooting reawakened national outrage. Since the shooting, protests have continued throughout the country in Lagos, Abuja, and other major cities. 

On Sunday, in response to the protests, the Nigerian government announced SARS would be “dissolved.” The following day, Nigerian president Muhammadu Buhari promised in a speech on national television that “the disbanding of SARS is only the first step in our commitment to extensive police reforms,” and added that the government would “ensure that all those responsible for misconduct are brought to justice.” 

However, this isn’t the first time Nigerians have protested against the SARS unit, and this isn’t the first time the government has promised reform. Protests regarding police brutality have caused the government to say it would disband the SARS unit in 2017, 2018, and 2019. The unit was never disbanded, though, and protestors say SARS officers continue to act with impunity. 

Issues with modern day policing in Nigeria can actually be traced back to British colonial rule. “Policing in contemporary Nigeria is indeed rooted in a colonial policing philosophy that aims to dominate space, intimidate communities, and mete out exemplary punishments to serve as deterrents,” Moses Ochonu, a professor of history at Vanderbilt University, told VICE News. He noted that since colonial police engaged in military operations against Nigerians and the emphasis was on the “suppression of revolt” rather than protection, “brute force was the primary operating philosophy of the police.”

According to Ochonu, the Nigerian Police Force has not evolved past these colonial methods. “After independence in 1960, the postcolonial Nigerian police force was never reformed or decolonized to protect communities rather than treat them as potential criminals and insurgents against state supremacy” said Ochonu. “The police continued to treat Nigerians as people who must be intimidated into submission … Now, as in colonial times, the Nigerian police are an instrument of the state rather than an institution dedicated to protecting and serving the Nigerian people.” This, he said, explained the SARS unit’s brutality. 

Formed in 1992, the origins of the SARS police unit actually harkens back to a dispute between the Nigerian army and the Lagos police force. While sitting in a traffic jam at a Lagos checkpoint, army colonel Israel Rindam got out of his car to check on the delay. He was shot by police officers at the checkpoint, and the officers, after realizing he was an army official, abandoned their posts. 

Soldiers in Lagos were incensed, and stormed police barracks throughout the city. The police, in turn, went into hiding. “During this period, the incidence of robbery swelled and there was an urgent need for intervention,” Abimbola Oyarinu, a lecturer in history at Oxbridge College in Lagos, told VICE News. SARS was then founded by Simeon Danladi Midenda, a now-retired police commissioner, as a covert unit within the Nigerian Police Force. While there were other anti-robbery units, SARS could operate while the rest of the force was in dispute with the army. After the police and army reconciled, the unit was officially commissioned. 

Beyond the disagreements in law enforcement, SARS began during a moment of turmoil for Nigeria: “The falling and failing economy after the oil boom, depreciating naira, the Nigerian civil war, Structural Adjustment Programme and poor leadership,” Oyarinu said. “All these factors culminated in creating an environment ripe for insecurity and violent crimes.” 

“Major Nigerian cities, especially the ones of the southwest [like] Lagos, Ibadan, and Benin were riddled with crimes such that armed robberies were happening during the day,” Ikemsit Effiong, a senior researcher at Nigerian geopolitical intelligence group SBM intelligence, told VICE News. “So SARS was created [as] a specialist hit squad that could metaphorically think the way the enemies think, operate the way the enemies operate, and address that sharp rise in armed robberies.” As a result, SARS officers were given allowance to operate outside of the system. 

“They became law unto themselves, and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.”

The unit started small, working as a 15-person team that traveled on two buses. Unit members didn’t wear name tags, or even uniforms, and their anonymity was supposed to help them address crime. “The secret behind the successes of the original SARS was its facelessness and its mode of operation,” Midenda told Nigerian newspaper Vanguard in 2017. “We were fully combatant and combat ready at all times … We never stood on the road looking for robbers. We met them in their beds.”

However, the unit did not experience any oversight. “The police unit was let loose on Nigerian communities with little or no accountability and with tenuous control from the central police hierarchy,” Ochonu said. “They became law unto themselves, and began to act as accusers, judges, and executioners.”

With the rise of cyber crimes, the SARS mandate changed. In 2018 alone, cybercrime in Nigeria cost citizens $800 million dollars, and instead of dealing with heavily-armed suspects in person, SARS units were forced to contend with tech-savvy Nigerians who, said Effiong, resemble “average Nigerian youth, entrepreneur, a tech guy, or a freelancer who does a significant amount of work on his computer.”  Ostensibly in search of these suspects, the SARS unit, Effiong added, profiled “everyone that works, talks and appears like those people.” 

The unit then became known for “extortion, road blocks, extrajudicial killings, torture, and rape,” said Oyarinu. Founded after police brutality led to a national dispute, SARS became the very thing it was supposed to counteract. 

“One thing that is clear to me is that they have deviated from the original concept,” said Midenda in 2017. “The controversies engulfing SARS today will not disappear unless they return to the original concept. They should undergo reorientation and thereafter, disappear from public view and remain faceless.” 

The announcement from Buhari about accountability for SARS officers, Ochonu said, “is a face-saving gesture by the government.” But, he added, “the entire Nigerian police needs to be decolonized, not just SARS.” 

Beyond the SARS unit, policing in Nigeria has long been controversial. In 2016, the World Internal Security and Police Index ranked Nigeria’s police force last of the 127 countries surveyed. The Nigerian Police Act, which was repealed last month, was passed in 2004 and for years did not hold officers accountable for misconduct. 

“The ideal thing would be to have a new generation of police officers that are significantly incentivized to do their jobs well,” added Effiong. “We need to be empowered with a modern approach of policing and the fact is a lot of the current crop of police officers would simply not make the cut, so that’s why reorienting the current crop of police officers is an insufficient means of addressing the systemic and generation-long deficiency.” 

Faith Moyosore, a 24-year-old poet, was on her way home from the Lagos International Poetry Festival on November 2, 2019, when her Uber driver was asked to pull over by SARS officers. 

“They started searching the car and my phone,” Moyosore told VICE News. She said they asked her where she was coming from, and insinuated that since she was out late at night, she must be a prostitute. “I told them it’s a poetry festival, and they were still not having it,” she said. “It’s mentally draining.” 

While young women are frequently accused of prostitution by SARS officers, young men like Abdulsalam are accused of cybercrime and their electronics are confiscated or examined. Abdulrasheed Buhari told VICE News that he was biking to work in February when he was accosted by SARS officers. “One of them rough-handed me, literally wrestled me off the bike,” he said. “I was asking them what’s going on but they asked me to get in their car so I didn’t argue with them.” 

They “showed us some body bags and told us that they can kill us here and nobody will know, nothing will happen and they will throw our body away.”

Buhari, 22, said they then interrogated him, and pointed a gun at his face. “So I complied and unlocked my phone and gave it to them. They started ransacking my phone, they started checking my Whatsapp messages. They invaded my privacy, [and] checked my mail. Even my music.” While they didn’t beat him, Buhari said that he watched as they attacked two other men the SARS officers stopped. They asked him for money, and Buhari said they “showed us some body bags and told us that they can kill us here and nobody will know, nothing will happen and they will throw our body away.” Finally, he was released when he withdrew 50,000 naira, or $130, from an ATM nearby. 

On Monday, Vandefan Tersugh James, a former SARS commander, justified these kinds of searches in a televised interview on AIT, a national broadcaster. “No matter what you say, SARS deals mostly with the youth because 90% of suspects you have in your cell are always those who are young men and women that are there,” he said. “If I stop you on the road and I want to look at your phone and I want to see your facebook I don’t think I’m committing any crime … I’m only asking you a simple question.” His attitude isn’t that different from other Nigerian politicians: Lai Mohammed, Nigeria’s minister of information and culture said in January that the Nigerian government has not targeted human rights, nor have they covered up “damaging evidence” with regards to SARS. Just last week, the president of the Nigerian Senate Ahmad Lawan said that he did not support the disbanding of SARS, and added that not all SARS officers acted inappropriately. 

Regardless of the unit’s intent, its methodology can have devastating results. In April, Oluwaseyi Akinade, 23, died by suicide after leaving a note that detailed his extortion and torture at the hands of SARS. No inquiries were made into the unit’s methods after Akinade’s death, but even when the SARS unit is held accountable, justice is seldom served. 

In 2015, Afam Nriezedi was arrested by SARS in Lagos, Nigeria. He was first accused of stealing four AK47 rifles, then later of participating in a kidnapping. Over three years later, in October 2018, a judge on the Federal High Court of Nigeria found SARS guilty of detaining Nriezedi without an arraignment or court trial, and awarded 20 million naira, or $52,000, in damages, and one million naira, or around $2,500, for illegal detention. The judge, according to court documents obtained by VICE News, also ordered “that [SARS] shall either arraign [Nriezedi] before a court of law within 24 hours from the date of this ruling or release him immediately.” This ruling took place over two years ago, but Nriezedi has yet to be released. 

“We got a judgement,” Collins Okeke, a criminal reform advocate and Nriezedi’s lawyer at Human Right Law Services, told VICE News. Okeke said that the court has been unable to get SARS to “provide an explanation of what happened to the boy… It’s a very sad case. It’s an accountability problem.” Okeke said that he was told indirectly by a police commissioner that Nriezedi died in custody after being tortured, though his family has still not been given his body. 

“It is the most notorious security agency as far as security is concerned.”

Torture is illegal in Nigeria, and while some politicians have endeavored to hold SARS accountable, they have largely been unsuccessful. In December 2017, President Muhammadu Buhari passed the Anti-Torture Act, which states that an offender “is liable on conviction to imprisonment for a term not exceeding Twenty-Five (25) years.” The law is a “very beautiful piece of legislation,” Okeke said. “Unfortunately both the police and the public are not aware of the law and its consequences.” 

Research from Amnesty International shows that torture remains a routine and systemic part of SARS investigations, and is used as both a means of punishment and as a tool for questioning detainees. There are even designated torture chambers in SARS offices, and the reigning officer, according to Amnesty International, is known informally as “O/C Torture,” or the Officer in Charge of Torture. 

“It is the most notorious security agency as far as security is concerned,” Isa Sanusi, media director at Amnesty International in Nigeria, told VICE News. “We have documented all their misconduct for so many years and we have been advising them on what to do to improve and make their operation smooth and be more people-friendly, more human rights-friendly, but they’ve refused, they didn’t change.” 

SARS officers accused of torture have, in some cases, been reportedly transferred to other stations, or promoted. According to Effiong, SARS officers are usually tried in an internal police justice system that reports directly back to the police. The Police Service Commission, set up by the federal government, has powers to discipline and dismiss SARS officers and other police officers. However, the commission cannot refer cases to external courts for prosecution, as complaints made to the body have to be referred to the police for further investigation. As a result, perpetrators tend to walk free. 

If SARS officers are ever to be held accountable, “the system has to be radically changed,” said Effiong. 

And that change, protestors hope, will come from the people. Since the demonstrations began last week, the #ENDSARS hashtag has continued to trend on Twitter, and celebrities like actor John Boyega, Wizkid, and Cardi B have all voiced their support of the movement. Anonymous, the international hacking organization, claimed that they infiltrated the Nigerian government’s websites in support of the protestors. 

But even following government announcements of reform, SARS is still operating covertly in unmarked vehicles, searching through the mobile phones of protestors to check for the use of the #ENDSARS hashtag. Footage has also shown police officers shooting at protestors, and since the demonstrations began last week, 10 Nigerians have died during the protests. 

Despite the danger, youthful protesters, full of energy and defiance in the face of bullets, water cannons, teargas, violent arrests, and possible death have been clear about their goal: #ENDSARS


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In SNL’s cold open, the final presidential debate becomes an absurd slugfest over coronavirus



Saturday Night Live parodied the final presidential debate during its opening sketch on Saturday, depicting President Donald Trump as clueless and callous about the third wave of the coronavirus pandemic, and Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden as comically old-fashioned and goofy about everything.

Maya Rudolph, playing moderator and NBC journalist Kristen Welker, began the debate by reminding the participants that she had a mute button — a feature that was added to the actual final debate because of Trump’s relentless interruptions during the first debate in September.

“Tonight we have a mute button, because it was either that or tranquilizer darts — and the president has a very high tolerance for those after his Covid treatment,” Rudolph’s Welker declared.

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As the debate began, Trump, played by Alec Baldwin, immediately downplayed the virus as worthy of the public’s concern.

“Coronavirus — boring, right? We’re doing terrific,” Baldwin said. “We’re rounding the corner, in fact we’ve rounded so many corners we’ve gone all the way around the block that we’re back where we started in March.”

Biden, played by Jim Carrey, retorted, “C’mon man, we’re in the middle of a third wave! Where I come from if a girl gave you a third wave, you were practically married.”

Later on, Baldwin’s Trump promised that a coronavirus vaccine would be distributed by the military in spectacular fashion: “The army will come and shoot it with a cannon into your face.”

He then rambled about his own experience with Covid-19.

“Look, I had it, it was very mean to me, but I beat it, and now the doctors say I can never die,” Baldwin said. “And this virus said to me, ‘Sir, sir, I have to leave your body.’ Now the virus was crying, very sad. It didn’t want to leave my body. And the point is we’re all learning to live with it.”

Dramatizing the actual Biden’s response to Trump saying, “We’re learning to live with it,” on Thursday, Carrey said with a squint, “Learning to live with it? We’re learning to die with it man!”

Overall, Biden’s debate performance was characterized as “a little feisty,” and SNL satirized this by having Rudolph’s Welker halt the proceedings to observe, “Looks like Mr. Biden is so mad he’s Eastwooding it a little bit,” in a reference to actor and director Clint Eastwood.

“That’s right, now I believe the little lady asked you about a plan, why don’t you enlighten us, punk?” Carrey said.

Rudy Giuliani, played by Kate McKinnon, also made a brief appearance during the debate.

“Get ready for this truth bomb!” McKinnon’s Giuliani shouted. “Your son Hunter got $3 million from Moscow and his friend Tony Babdooey has emails right there on the wet laptop from hell! And our eyewitness saw everything and he is blind!”

The statement is a reference to a questionable story published by the New York Post alleging the discovery of inappropriate emails by Hunter Biden on a laptop dropped off at a repair shop. As Vox’s Andrew Prokop recently explained, “questions have been raised about whether that story is accurate and whether all the information allegedly on the laptop is authentic.”

In making his closing statement, Carrey’s Biden presented himself as the safe option by likening himself to a reliable car.

“Look, everybody, you know who he is and you know who I am,” he said. “I’m good old Joe. I’m reliable as a rock. I’ve got a five-star safety rating and I’m ranked best midsize in my class by J.D. Power and Associates. I don’t have a gold toilet seat. I have a soft, spongy one that hisses whenever I park my keister.”

“There’s only two things I do,” he added. “I kick ass and I take trains. And I don’t see any trains in sight. And that ladies in gentlemen, is no malarkey.”


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‘Boycott French products’ launched over Macron’s Islam comments



Several Arab trade associations have announced the boycott of French products, protesting the recent comments made by President Emmanuel Macron on Islam.

Earlier this month, Macron pledged to fight “Islamist separatism”, which he said was threatening to take control in some Muslim communities around France.

He also described Islam as a religion “in crisis” worldwide and said the government would present a bill in December to strengthen a 1905 law that officially separated church and state in France.

His comments, in addition to his backing of satirical outlets publishing caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad, has led to a social media campaign calling for the boycott of French products from supermarkets in Arab countries and Turkey.

Hashtags such as the #BoycottFrenchProducts in English and the Arabic #ExceptGodsMessenger trended across countries including Kuwait, Qatar, Palestine, Egypt, Algeria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

In Kuwait, the chairman and members of the board of directors of the Al-Naeem Cooperative Society decided to boycott all French products and to remove them from supermarket shelves.

The Dahiyat al-Thuhr association took the same step, saying: “Based on the position of French President Emmanuel Macron and his support for the offensive cartoons against our beloved prophet, we decided to remove all French products from the market and branches until further notice.”

In Qatar, the Wajbah Dairy company announced a boycott of French products and pledged to provide alternatives, according to their Twitter account.

Al Meera Consumer Goods Company, a Qatari joint stock company, announced on Twitter: “We have immediately withdrawn French products from our shelves until further notice.”

“We affirm that as a national company, we work according to a vision consistent with our true religion, our established customs and traditions, and in a way that serves our country and our faith and meets the aspirations of our customers.”

Qatar University also joined the campaign. Its administration has postponed a French Cultural Week event indefinitely, citing the “deliberate abuse of Islam and its symbols”.

In a statement on Twitter, the university said any prejudice against Islamic belief, sanctities and symbols is “totally unacceptable, as these offences harm universal human values ​​and the highest moral principles that contemporary societies highly regard”.

The Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) described Macron’s statements as “irresponsible”, and said they are aimed at spreading a culture of hatred among peoples.

“At a time when efforts must be directed towards promoting culture, tolerance and dialogue between cultures and religions, such rejected statements and calls for publishing insulting images of the Prophet (Muhammad) – may blessings and peace be upon him – are published,” said the council’s secretary-general, Nayef al-Hajraf.

Al-Hajraf called on world leaders, thinkers and opinion leaders to reject hate speech and contempt of religions and their symbols, and to respect the feelings of Muslims, instead of falling captive to Islamophobia.

In a statement, Kuwait’s foreign ministry warned against the support of abuses and discriminatory policies that link Islam to terrorism, saying it “represents a falsification of reality, insults the teachings of Islam, and offends the feelings of Muslims around the world”.

On Friday, the Organisation of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) condemned what it said was France’s continued attack against Muslims by insulting religious symbols.

The secretariat of the Jeddah-based organisation said in a statement it is surprised at the official political rhetoric issued by some French officials that offend French-Islamic relations and fuels feelings of hatred for political party gains.


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How bookstores are weathering the pandemic



The pandemic arrived early for Emily Powell, owner of Powell’s Books in Portland, Oregon. The state had one of the first confirmed cases of Covid-19 in the US in February. As she watched more cases pop up across the country, “I felt an increasing sense of panic and crisis,” she said. On March 15, she abruptly closed her stores in the middle of the day. She immediately shrank her staff from 500 to 60 who were “just helping us turn the lights off and put out-of-office messages on the website.” Almost overnight, she shifted her business entirely to online orders.

She’s since been able to bring back around 150 employees, and thanks to a flood of online sales, a Paycheck Protection Program loan from the federal Small Business Administration, and partial reopenings of her stores, she’s made it this far.

Still, Powell’s and other independent bookstores across the country face an uncertain and undoubtedly difficult future: Government assistance has dried up, foot traffic is still low, and the virus is again threatening to bring everything to a screeching halt. Independent bookstore owners dug deep into their wells of creativity and passion and found ways to transform their businesses to cope with Covid-19. But even so, according to the American Booksellers Association (ABA), 35 member bookstores have closed during the pandemic, with roughly one store closing each week. Twenty percent of independent bookstores across the country are in danger of closing, the ABA says.

Between mid-April and June, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (BINC) distributed $2.7 million to store owners in need. “That equals the distribution that we had had in the previous eight years,” said executive director Pamela French. The individual grants it gives out have increased 443 percent over last year. The level of need has subsided somewhat since the peak of the pandemic, but it’s remained consistently elevated, even with many stores now open.

A number of bookstores shut their doors voluntarily before any government lockdowns were imposed. “We were one of the first places in our town to close down,” said Suedee Hall-Elkins, manager of Dickson Street Bookshop in Fayetteville, Arkansas. Her store’s aisles are very narrow, so they felt the need to close “for morally responsible reasons.”

Closing off browsing meant a seismic shift in bookstore business models. Kris Kleindienst’s shelves at Left Bank Books in St. Louis, Missouri, were fully stocked with newly released books in March. “All of a sudden, they just became décor,” she said.

Still, owners pivoted as quickly as they could. “These independent bookstore owners are just tenacious,” French said. Owners suddenly found themselves arranging curbside pickups, shipping thousands of online orders, and staging completely virtual events.

Many factors boosted sales just when stores needed them. Customers flooded online ordering systems, many in the hope of helping their local stores, others simply desperate for something to read during lockdown. Amazon started prioritizing essential goods over things like books, giving an edge to independent stores. Annie Philbrick’s online orders at Bank Square Books in Mystic, Connecticut, and Savoy Bookshop & Café in Westerly, Rhode Island, are about 10 times what they were each year for the past five. Michael Fusco-Straub, co-owner of Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, sold 50,000 books during his city’s lockdown.

Then the Black Lives Matter protests over the death of George Floyd took off, prompting another deluge of purchases as readers were eager to get their hands on books about race and racism. “The summer was mostly fulfilling … anti-racism orders,” Kleindienst said.

The switch to online and curbside ordering saved bookstores from ruin. But it wasn’t easy, nor was it enjoyable. “It started to feel like a fulfillment warehouse for widgets,” said Steven Salardino, manager of Skylight Books in Los Angeles, California. “It really took a toll on us psychologically.” What kept him going, he said, was getting notes in online orders saying thank you.

Philbrick took it upon herself to pick up books from her two stores and drive them to customers’ homes. “I was a UPS driver for a month or so,” she said. She would hang bags of books on their doors, ring the bell, and walk back to her car. She even drove an hour and a half out of town to bring books to a couple who would leave her snack bags in thanks. “That was a pleasure,” she said.

In many ways, online ordering is the antithesis of what independent bookstores are. “We are a community space that thrived with that in-person, face-to-face conversation about ideas and literature,” said Hilary Gustafson, owner of Literati Bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Her store typically stages 300 events a year, and the in-store ones pack 50 people “elbow to elbow,” she said. Now, she’s been entirely focused on online orders, which requires “10 times as much work for a sale of one book.”

Stores like Gustafson’s quickly moved their programming — author events, book clubs, classes — to online platforms. But it’s a difficult and often money-losing way to do them. Stores typically make money from free events when people buy books, often getting them autographed. Online, it’s different. “Sales are down even though audience levels are, in some cases, up,” Graham said. Readers also now have a vast array of stores’ events to choose from because they’re all online. “The competition has just become fierce,” Philbrick said.

Despite the many hurdles small-business owners faced in getting PPP loans, all of the stores I spoke to were able to secure loans, and the money was vital. “The thing that got us this far and avoided bankruptcy was the PPP money,” said Bradley Graham, co-owner of Politics and Prose in Washington, DC. Even so, it was gone within a couple of months.

Other money came from unexpected places. Philbrick got $5,000 from Spanx, which was offering grants to women-owned businesses. That, she said, was a turning point of sorts, when she realized that not only would she have a cushion to get through, but “we’re all in this together trying to figure this out.”

Some customers even gave their local bookstores donations in the hope of keeping them alive. Gustafson’s store launched a GoFundMe, which was a “lifeline,” she said. She raised more there than she got in PPP money.

But at this point, most of the money has dried up. “Given the current level of economic activity, it’s not realistic to think that bookstores or other retail businesses can, on their own, make a go of it,” Graham said with a heavy sigh. “More federal assistance is needed so long as the pandemic persists.”

Some stores are doing as well as they would otherwise expect thanks to loyal customers and a thirst for books as people stay closer to home. But those factors aren’t making the numbers work for everyone.

Vroman’s, which bills itself as the oldest and largest independent bookstore in Southern California, has warned that without a significant increase in sales, its 126-year tenure will come to a close. Powell’s has exhausted its PPP loan and isn’t making enough in sales to support the business. Politics & Prose is still not breaking even, and the store will need to make enough in the next few months to have a cushion headed into 2021. “It’s not a sustainable position to continue to operate in the red,” Graham said. Laughing, he added, “You don’t need a degree in anything to understand that fact.”

A number of stores have opened their doors simply to remain as financially solvent as possible. When we spoke, Gustafson was preparing to open with limited hours and days. “Our rent is still due and we still have payables,” she said. “We want to survive, so it’s like, ‘How do we make this work?’”

“We face this tension between the need to welcome in more customers for the holiday shopping season in order to at least get back in the black,” Graham said, “while at the same time being very careful not to create a public health hazard.”

Public health has been at the forefront of the minds of owners who have reopened as fully as possible. All stores have reduced their hours as well as their capacity. Everyone has installed Plexiglas barriers at cash registers and hand sanitizing stations throughout their stores. There’s crowd control not just to limit the number of shoppers but to ensure that masks are worn correctly. Many stores have rearranged their layouts so customers don’t have to squeeze by each other in tight aisles.

Hall-Elkins went even further, installing UV lights and ionizing cleaners in all three of her HVAC units, putting fans around the store, and keeping the door open as much as possible to better ventilate. She replaced her old carpets and installed touchless credit card systems.

Books Are Magic in Brooklyn, New York, in May 2020, before reopening at limited capacity.
ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images

Owners have found themselves in entirely new roles, worried not just about their business’s finances but the health of their employees, their customers, and their own families. Hall-Elkins finds herself up late reading medical articles. “I’m in a heightened state of anxiety for sure,” she said. Laughing, she added, “I feel responsible for everybody’s life, and that’s a really weird thing to feel as a manager of a bookstore.”

Some have kept their doors closed. When we spoke in the first week of October, Kleindienst said she was planning to open that weekend by appointment and only after 6 pm. “Our staff really did not feel like they wanted people to be just walking in off the street and wandering around,” she explained. “It just didn’t seem like it was worth risking our lives.” She’s hoping that allowing a very select group of customers back in will be enough to keep the store afloat. But, she added, “I don’t see us opening the doors to walk-in traffic for quite a while.”

The holiday season will be crucial. Nearly every bookstore owner mentioned how important the season is normally — and therefore what it will mean now. Graham said the store typically makes anywhere from a quarter to a third of the whole year’s sales in December alone. “It’s an absolutely critical period.”

To help stores that need to see high sales without big crowds, the American Booksellers Association has begun a campaign urging consumers to shop early called “October Is the New December.” Other things will have to change, too. Normally, Salardino’s store offers gift-wrapping for a fee, and he’d have a long line of people waiting to have books wrapped. That’s not possible now.

One book could make or break the future for many stores: The first volume of President Barack Obama’s memoir will be released November 17. Not only is it destined to be a bestseller — the publisher ordered a first printing of 3 million copies — but it’s pricey, coming in at $45. “I literally think that that book is going to save a lot of stores,” Fusco-Straub said. His store will be ordering a whole pallet.

The future, of course, remains completely uncertain. It’s difficult just to plan ahead. Philbrick noted she’s ordering paperback copies of hardcover books that she struggled to sell during the shutdown, which means the data she typically relies on to predict future sales are almost useless. “As a business person, we’re all used to being able to forecast,” Powell said. But now, “we can’t see beyond a 30-day time horizon.”

Hall-Elkins worries that a virus spike or just cold weather will keep people home from holiday shopping. Then there’s what could happen with the election or the economy. The immediate pandemic-caused contraction appears to be turning into a full-blown recession. “We don’t know how much folks will be able to shop,” Powell noted. “Books aren’t … groceries or rent. How much will people be willing to come out to our stores?”

Few owners were willing to contemplate what another complete shutdown would mean. “I don’t even know what we would do,” Hall-Elkins said. “We would probably be in pretty big trouble.”

Losing an independent bookstore is a huge blow to a community. “These are places where folks can come together to discuss what’s going on in the world, to also have a safe haven and a safe place for exploring new ideas,” French said. Bookstores “provide everything from sanctuary to just meditative spaces.” And they help keep an economy humming, retaining money in the local community and generating jobs and tax revenue.

Still, independent bookstores have been through a lot, including competition from big chains and Amazon. “People have been predicting the end of indie bookstores since the Great Depression,” said Kate Weiss, programs manager at BINC. Even with a pandemic, 30 bookstores have opened this year so far, although that’s still a far cry from the 104 that opened in 2019.

“We’re a stalwart bunch,” Philbrick said. “We’re just going to keep going. We’re not dead.”

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