In the Suburbs: With power outages, pandemics, Fairfield University Bookstore has been an anchor
Last week’s Hurricane Isaias was probably worse in many ways than hurricane Sandy nearly 12 years ago with more downed trees but longer-lasting power outages. And for so many Fairfield residents, still reeling from the long quarantine of COVID-19, that loss of electricity was just about the last straw. No electricity in one of the more brutal summers of the past few years, not only raised temperatures in homes, it probably contributed to more temper flare ups as well.
But the electrical outages had a silver lining for the Fairfield University Bookstore where I work. As with our re-opening in June, this storm made us a major discover for many new customers and, as always, the port in the storm for our existing customers. While we had to close on the day of the storm, on the following day the store had electricity and reasonably-working Wi-Fi and opened to one its busiest days since the recent sidewalk sale in July. That steady flow of people continued into the weekend.
When I arrived for my late afternoon shift last Wednesday, I discovered that my exhausted colleagues had been working non-stop with customers, especially those with young children, to find them games, activities, puzzles and a lot of bargain books to read. And for adults or older students, our New York Times hard cover and soft cover bestsellers, always updated weekly, were selling like crazy along with our middle reader and young adult books upstairs in the kids’ section.
Bookstore colleagues said that the store was probably at its capacity of 25 shoppers at a time for most of Wednesday and they were constantly counting and recounting to keep things under control. My manager added that so many people were coming into the store not just to shop but to charge i-phones and tablets and he was scrambling all day to reluctantly set up a few chairs upstairs and point customers in the direction of outlets to charge phones and tablets.
He also explained that, while it was painful, he had to remind a lot of folks that we were still in the middle of COVID-19 restrictions and no one could sit on the floors or window sills. And those arriving without masks needed to be asked to wear them. Also, we are constantly sanitizing the store and our policy is to have customers, who aren’t going to purchase a book or other item, place the items in the black baskets we have set up throughout the store.
Of course, Starbucks was busy throughout the day, selling coffee, lattes, macchiatos and ice tea along with their supply of sweets and sandwiches to hungry folks who had no electricity. The few chairs in the café were taken quickly, but people could migrate to the tables outside.
Despite the circumstances of our larger-than-usual weekly sales, I am happy to know that the bookstore is here in the best and the worst of times. Our boss, Jim Fitzpatrick of Fairfield University once mentioned to me that his goal in working with Follett, our parent company, was to establish an anchor bookstore in town along with our store on campus. And it’s great when town residents know that they have a place to come, not just in storms but anytime.
Ever since the pandemic restrictions lifted, I’ve talked with more customers who told me how happy they are just to be in a bookstore again without needing to drive to Westport. I couldn’t agree more and I’ve heard that a lot in the nearly 9 years that we’ve been open.
Fortunately, we’ve been able to open after major snow storms and other occasional power outages. I guess the utility gods have been on our side and, to my knowledge, we haven’t lost power. Of course, pre-pandemic, when residents were affected by outages, we’ve had unlimited customers sitting on floors and near wall outlets and at our long conference table upstairs in the kids’ section. In those days, customers were using our WiFi, charging phones, shopping, gathering in Starbucks and just generally enjoying the store.
I’m glad that the bookstore has been an escape for folks or visitors in town not just after a storm, but on holidays, weekend evenings after late dinners and on Sundays, especially during the farmers market. And for me, as I begin my 9th year this week, I’m glad to be working there to meet new and regular customers and offer help with books or merchandise. It’s great to be part of our anchor store team in Fairfield.
Steven Gaynes is a Fairfield writer, and his “In the Suburbs” appears occasionally on Fridays. He can be reached at email@example.com.