A pandemic sweeping the globe starting in 2020 could have been the plot of a novel, but unfortunately, it was all too real.
Like many Tallahassee restaurants, a local bookstore — the Midtown Reader — also turned to delivery as a way to make ends meet during the early days of the pandemic in 2020.
The independent bookstore is owned and operated by Sally Bradshaw. Born in Mississippi, she started her career as a Republican political operative interning for then-Gov. Haley Barbour. She worked in the George H.W. Bush Administration before managing Jeb Bush’s 1998 successful run for governor in Florida. She managed his unsuccessful 2016 presidential campaign and later that year publicly left the Republican Party over Donald Trump’s rhetoric.
COVID at Work: A look at the pandemic's legacy on Tallahassee businesses
Opened in November 2016, Bradshaw describes Midtown Reader as the city’s only general-subject, independent bookstore selling new books. It has become known for being active with local organizations.
“We're trying to provide an experience that brings readers together around reading and learning,” Bradshaw said. “So we've always leaned in pretty heavily in building community partnerships and donating to the point where we can.”
Bradshaw said she and her husband, legendary Republican operative and lobbyist Paul Bradshaw, were closely following the news about the coronavirus after first hearing about it in December. In March, as people started testing positive for COVID-19, she learned that her daughter Helen had to come home from Emory University because campus had closed.
“At that point I think we knew, OK, this is a problem,” Bradshaw said. “This is a challenge we're going to have to deal with.”
The bookstore shut down when Gov. Ron DeSantis issued a statewide safer-at-home order in April. She said she and her husband discussed the future of Midtown Reader.
“We had to make a personal decision about whether or not to fund the company if things became challenging,” she said. “And so we talked about that and we looked at the numbers and we made the decision. We wanted to keep the business open, but that required a personal, personal financial commitment from us.
Midtown Reader opened up again in mid-June, but during those more than two months, Bradshaw utilitized delivery and curbside service.
She said they took an electric car that she and her husband owned, wrapped it in Midtown Reader logos, named it “the Midtown Reader Mobile” and made it the delivery car for the bookstore. What started off as a free service has become so popular that they now charge a fee for the service.
Once the store reopened in June, Mondays were reserved for private browsers. Just five people were allowed in the store at a time for the rest of the week. They required patrons wear masks and also installed a plexi guard barrier at the cash register.
Bradshaw said one of the things the pandemic compelled her to do was upgrade the store’s online presence.
“We’d really not spent much time leaning into that online business,” she said. “We've not attempted to grow it. COVID forced us to grow it.”
The investment in online has paid off in increased sales, Bradshaw said. She’s seen a more than 600 percent increase between March 2020 and March 2021.
“We credit the community with leaning in and wanting us to make it through the pandemic,” she said.
The store ended the private browsing on Mondays this past summer as the store reopened to full capacity. Bradshaw said her staff had all been vaccinated by that point in time and Leon County lifted its masked requirement. The county did so after the governor suspended all local emergency COVID-19 orders statewide in May.
Bradshaw said the bookstore has yet to make profit during the nearly five years it’s been in business. But the hard work she and her staff have put in during the past 18 months produced a 21 percent boost in sales. And the store’s biggest months are still ahead, October, November, and December.
Midtown Reader plans to continue the services it offered during the worst months of COVID-19, especially as businesses keep an eye on new variants of the virus, like Delta. Bradshaw also plans to continue hosting virtual events with authors on Zoom.
“We can get authors that typically do not make it to Tallahassee. And we can also provide a venue for people who may not want to travel at night to an event or, you know, people who, for whatever reason, for health reasons, have to stay at home,” she said. “So I think we'll continue a mix of in-person events and virtual events.”
About this project
This project is funded by the Knight Foundation as a part of its community grant program, which supports projects which promote economic opportunity through the arts, journalism and entrepreneurship. The project, which is being published in online and print editions of the Democrat over a series of days, is a partnership of Knight, The Village Square, the Community Foundation of North Florida and Skip Foster Consulting. See more stories from the project at www.tallahassee.com/pandemic-economy. This series is available to all online readers, but we hope you’ll subscribe to support local journalism like this at offers.tallahassee.com.
Never miss a story: Subscribe to the Tallahassee Democrat using the link at the top of the page.
This article originally appeared on Tallahassee Democrat: Midtown Reader: Pandemic forces Tallahassee bookstore to evolve