Capacity limits set by the state meant that we had to turn customers away or make them wait. Too many web orders didn’t mean we were doing great business—it meant that the balance of web orders to in-person business was drastically skewed from normal times, preventing us from being able to sell as many books as quickly as we usually can during a busy holiday season. Most of last year, we were able to keep up with web orders either because our front doors were locked, or because foot traffic was slow. In December, foot traffic was busier, but so was curbside pickup, and web orders were coming in faster than we could fill them, leaving us doing a lot more work and expending a lot more energy for fewer customers.
We tried really hard not to have to do a full-on fundraiser. We eked by during the shutdown months with just a PPP loan, internet sales, small donations, and pleas to buy gift cards. We even thought things were starting to get back to normal this summer and fall, that while maybe we wouldn’t catch up per se, at least we wouldn’t go further into debt. Then the Christmas season came, and at first, it was hard work but it was doable. But around the middle of December, we realized that we were faced with an impossible choice: shut down the store to browsers or shut down the website. Web orders are extremely time consuming and labor intensive compared to in-store transactions, but during COVID, about 40% of our sales were coming from our website. Even so, the volume was more than we could handle and still accommodate the in-person and phone traffic. We had no choice, really. We had to turn away that 40% of business. At any time of the year, this would be a terrible decision to have to make, but during the Christmas season, when 20% of our annual sales are usually earned, it was disastrous to our bottom line. Christmas is how we pay our property taxes. It’s how we catch up with our vendors. In good years, it knocks out our credit card debt before heading into a new year. During bad years like this one, it was needed to catch us up on back rent. Unfortunately, none of that happened this year. Our Christmas earnings were just a drop in a very large pool of debt that has now gotten out of control.
Now that we've seen where we are after Christmas, the problems that we've faced for the last nine months have become far too pressing. We pay $18,000 a month in rent plus another $55,000 a year in property taxes. That's $271,000 a year before we even pay to turn the lights on, pay a single salary, or buy a book to put on our shelves. It's an astonishing figure, but in normal times, it actually makes sense. But these are not normal times. In normal times, the Lake Theatre would have lines of moviegoers. This year, there was no movie traffic. In normal times, diners fill the restaurants with people. This year the restaurants have had to pivot to take-out only. In normal times, we have office workers filling the streets during their lunch hour, but this year most are still working remotely. In normal times, tourists visit Oak Park, but now few are traveling, and with good reason. $271,000 a year is a lot in normal times, but it becomes outright impossible if we aren't getting any of the Downtown Oak Park synergy we normally have.
Vaccine rollouts and a new administration give us a lot of hope for the future, but we need to make it to that future first. We know that everywhere you turn right now, there are people, organizations and businesses that are worse off. We know that it’s unfair to be asking the same people who *have* been supporting us and buying from us through the whole pandemic to do even more. But we’ve exhausted most of our options at this point, so here we are. If you can afford to do so, if our continued presence in Oak Park matters to you, please consider donating. We couldn’t have made it to this point without the overwhelming love, loyalty, and support we’ve received from this amazing community. We would be beyond grateful to be able to continue to serve this community for many years to come.
- Michael Applegate
- Naomi Hildner
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