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A Year of Local Support has Made a World of Difference for Turning the Tide Bookstore

Turning the Tide Bookstore has been operating in Saskatoon’s Broadway District since 2003. A wave of support for our business during COVID has taken us from the verge of shutting down, to thriving and growing in the course of one year. I was reluctant to share this story because I know that many businesses have struggled or closed due to COVID. Sharing our success story could feel like rubbing salt in a wound. However, by sharing our story, I hope that our success can benefit other small businesses and their workers going forward.

A year ago, Turning the Tide was not in a strong financial position. In 2015, we were forced to leave our old location behind Lydia’s Pub, just off Broadway. Moving the store and then facing a 6-month shut-down of streets in the Broadway area to replace the water mains meant a big hit to our bottom line. Community members generously donated to renovate our new space through a crowdfunding campaign, but we still needed to borrow money to cover the losses during this period. I was paying our bills and our staff and that’s about it. In fact, I made the decision to go back to university to train as a social worker because I saw little prospect for making a living from the store.

At the beginning of March 2020, the reality of the impending COVID shut-down dawned on me. We needed to quickly figure some way of carrying on business or risk losing the shop. Our strategy was to announce free city-wide book delivery, regardless of the size of the order (a service we still offer on orders over $30). The announcement was met with massive positive feedback and media attention. Orders started flooding in, and over the coming months, we delivered hundreds of packages from one end of the city to the other.

Our business was lucky. Books, like bikes, have been in high demand during the pandemic. Industry-wide, book sales have risen by 5% in the last 12 months. Our sales doubled, indicating that something else was going on in this city and for our store. One reason for the jump in sales was likely a response to local delivery and the ease with which people could order books from home through our online store. We were also early adopters of COVID safety measures in both the first-wave and the second-waves.

Rather than turning away, people supported us in larger numbers for making these decisions. However, I think the biggest reason we have survived and thrived was the “buy local” movement. Significant numbers of people consciously chose to buy books and other products locally rather than supporting an online giant.

These individual decisions to support our bookstore have had a real impact on our business. I have increased the hours of my employees, hired on new ones, and finally am able to afford to pay a living wage to my workers. I have also been able to offer paid sick time, which is especially important during a pandemic when we all need people who are unwell to be able to stay home. We have paid down our debt, made technological upgrades and sunk more money into marketing, prioritizing the support of local businesses with this spending. We are now looking at joining forces with other local businesses to create a delivery service that will allow more of us to affordably deliver goods and create jobs in the process.
   
COVID restrictions have brought hardship to many people and businesses. They have also shifted the way we work, relate to our friends and family, consume, and spend our leisure time. Many of these changes are here to stay. My hope is that the more positive changes, such as consumer habits of supporting local businesses, will endure. As small business owners, we can reward our customers for this support by delivering great service. This includes offering the convenience of online ordering, curbside pick-up and delivery services, and continuing to provide a human face to helping meet people’s needs. When we are successful, we can share that success with our workers in the form of better wages and benefits, ensuring that the profits generated in recovery are shared more equitably throughout the community.

The road to post-COVID recovery will not be without its challenges. However, when community and local business come together to support one another, we can contribute to a better world going forward.