When Melissa Haffeman temporarily closed the independent Islander Bookshop in March as restrictions mounted to prevent the spread of COVID-19, she thought it might spell the end of her small business.
However, she now realizes that the temporary closure might have offered the pause she needed to push through her fears and make the shop into the successful community bookstore she had dreamed of opening.
Haffeman had left her career in education and the nonprofit world to become a businessperson. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, the bookstore had only been open for four months. During that time, she had been focused on growing her business as much as possible.
“Prior to COVID, in February, I was trying to grow the business so much and analyzing so much, and it just felt like grow, grow, grow,” Haffeman said.
But as the pandemic loomed, public-facing businesses were required to close their doors, and Kodiak residents were ordered to “hunker down” and avoid places where people gathered. Concern spread through the business community: Employees were laid off, revenue stopped coming in, and many businesses were not sure if they would make it through the summer.
“All of a sudden, everything was on pause for an indefinite amount of time, and I didn’t know honestly if I could keep the bookstore open,” Haffeman said.
In a business impact survey conducted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce and released in April, 95% of business owners said they were negatively impacted by COVID-19, while 30% said they were likely to go out of business if the disruptions were not resolved by May 15.
Haffeman felt that concern. She did not know if there would be a recession or how much the pandemic would affect the island community.
Haffeman grew up in Kodiak and graduated from Kodiak High School. She later lived in Washington state and Colorado, but it wasn’t until she was traveling through New Zealand with her family that she decided to move back home.
“New Zealand reminded me so much of Kodiak,” she said. One day, she sat her husband down in a small coffee shop and told him she wanted to go home.
“I want to raise our kids in Kodiak. I miss it,” she recalled telling him. She thought he would be a hard sell on the idea, but he agreed wholeheartedly. In 2016, they moved back to the island.
Having worked in education her entire life, Haffeman took a position as principal of Kodiak Middle School. But when her father began suffering paralysis in both of his legs, she stepped down to help him.
But it wasn’t long before she started to miss working. She had received help from the resources available in Kodiak, so she began to think of a way to work while giving back to the community — the original inspiration behind her career in education.
She had always wondered about successfully running a business that gives back to the community. That business, she decided, was an independent bookstore.
After the pandemic hit, she thought her dream of growing her bookstore into a reflection of the community’s reading interests was over. For a while.
But fate — and the community — had other ideas.
Many community members approached Haffeman to compliment her on the shop and tell her how much the bookstore meant to them and their families. This outpouring of love and support helped give her the courage to push past doubts about her own abilities to run a business that resonated with people.
One person thanked her for inspiring her son to read because he could hold the books instead of merely browsing online. Another told her she loved the shop and offered to help in any way possible to keep it open.
This newfound courage was the force Haffeman needed to begin pivoting her business and finding tools to market and improve her inventory. She signed up for her first marketing class in June and has since accumulated an arsenal of business and marketing coaches, as well as online courses, to build what she calls her “own personal MBA.”
“The more that I learn, the more I can find what fits the bookshop, myself and the town,” Haffeman said.
She also found financial help to keep her business afloat through the federal Paycheck Protection Program, Kodiak’s small business grant program and the American Booksellers Association, where she received a percentage of books sold from her store via the ABA website.
She has also seen sales steadily increase since August.
“The summer was very slow. But now that it’s fall, (sales are) starting to return,” she said.
Haffeman has also started creating a new website, and has changed some of the non-book items in her shop. The latter change came about when she started considering ways she could make people feel better with more than a book. She took the idea of self-care and has adapted her inventory to that idea with items like scented candles, journals, plants and lanterns.
After having been in business now for almost one year, Haffeman has found a few of her niches, including books for homeschool and special orders. Her children’s book section is growing by the day, and in August she received 144 special order requests, her most ever.
Haffeman is like an investigator for hard-to-find books.
“Some (books) are really hard to find,” she said. “It’s a lot of fun to track it down.”
Once, she found a physics book that was requested from a professor in India. Another time, a chef asked her to find a special book about carb replacement but with other requirements. Some request out-of-print books, while others ask for books from a certain author, press and date.
“I’m pretty good at research,” she said, adding that finding the book from India took her several hours. “Because of those kinds of obscure requests, I have built up accounts on different platforms so I can find those hard-to-find or out-of-print books.”
Some people who are looking for self-help books or books on grief might slip her a piece of paper and silently request a book that they want to keep to themselves.
“In my previous career, confidentiality was huge,” she said. “I never realized that a bookshop would be haven that way also for many people.”
Through her ever increasing selection of books, curated around the community’s interest — cookbooks are up and romance books are down — she continues to build the community bookstore that Kodiakans had been missing for many years.