The marquee at And Books Too has always been direct. Each day, busy Johnston Street commuters look up to this sign and get a small dose of comic book deadpan. “Dinosaurs didn’t read. Look how that turned out.” Or this recent one: “Vegan zombies love grains.” This irreverent billboard advertising has served the venerable comics and gaming retailer well for its 30 years in business. Today, the sign speaks to the more serious reality at hand, its signature bluntness intact: “Still Closed. Not Stupid. Stay Safe.”
With many Lafayette retailers and consumers weighing the pros and cons of trying to resume normal business hours in the throes of the prolonged coronavirus pandemic, the message struck a chord. The store’s Facebook post of the marquee has garnered 295 shares over the past weekend and several comments, most of which have been overwhelmingly positive, according to the store’s acting manager, Jeffery LaJaunie.
“People are agreeing with us,” he says. LaJaunie adds he has only heard from one person, out of many, to have read the message as insulting. That isn’t the intent. “It’s definitely just meant as a general statement that we’re not ready [to re-open],” he explains. “We’re not gonna risk our people or our customers.”
Last week, Mayor-President Josh Guillory announced his Safe Shop policy: operating guidelines for retailers deemed nonessential but also not expressly prohibited by the state’s stay-at-home order. The policy directs these businesses to keep traffic to 25 percent of their max occupancy. Employees must wear masks and be monitored for fever, and the business must design ways to keep customers spaced six feet apart. These restrictions aren’t applied to “essential” businesses like grocery stores or pharmacies.
In the case of And Books Too, and many local retailers, the prospect of re-opening has invoked more anxiety than urgency. Even some big box retailers are taking pause. Barnes & Noble is using this time for an ongoing store redesign; the earliest it could reopen is the beginning of May, says Manager Drew Ziegler, noting the ongoing monitoring of guidelines from local and state health and government officials. Barnes & Noble is, however, offering curbside pickup for phone and online orders.
“Most people are staying home,” says Tess Brunet, co-owner of Lagniappe Records in Downtown Lafayette. “If we opened up and only let one or two people in at a time and followed the [Shop Safe] guidelines, which we would, that doesn’t make things back to normal. That doesn’t make business suddenly better or back up to the numbers we were doing before. I just don’t see the point for one or two people to come in and potentially risk others.”
Economic pressure is mounting. Many retailers are facing an unprecedented downturn in revenue and staff desperate for work hours. At Lagniappe, Brunet calculates business is down more than 60 percent. She worked through the night after the store closed March 16 to publish the store’s immense catalogue of new and used vinyl records, tapes and CDs (9,762 items) online. The store still operates virtually, taking orders through its website, with items either shipped directly or through contactless pickup. “We say hello through the window,” says Brunet. She’s at the shop during pickup hours, in her protective mask, ensuring items are properly sanitized and securely packaged, placing them in a bin outside the front door once customers confirm they are nearby.
Brunet acknowledges this operation won’t be sustainable for much longer, especially given that Lagniappe is one of many small businesses to have applied for — but yet to receive — disaster relief and payroll protection loans through the federal Small Business Administration. (The programs have run out of funds, but Congress is finalizing another round). Lagniappe Records was among an early wave of local retailers to close ahead of the governor’s stay-home order that went into effect March 23. Brunet, who lived for several years in Brooklyn and New Orleans, says she has personally felt the gravity of the pandemic, knowing several people who have tested positive and one close friend’s sister-in-law who died from Covid-19.
“I don’t know how long we can hang on this way,” she says. “It’s hard to make any definitive plans for a time that is just surrounded by so much uncertainty. I know everything is moving really fast, and things change day by day. But for us, it makes sense to continue how we have been operating since all of this started.”
At And Books Too, LaJaunie agrees that safety concerns are paramount. Having managed the store — and its signage — for the past 15 years, he recently stepped back in after time away to help out through the shut down. Both And Books Too’s owner, Marty Medlin, and its manager are focusing on caring for elderly parents and in-laws at this time. Comic stores have faced other upheavals. On March 23, Diamond Comic Distributors, which commands the lion’s share of distribution, announced a halt to its weekly deliveries. This is the largest disruption of service in the industry’s history since the comic era began in the 1930s.
Last Friday, LaJaunie spoke with Medlin about the situation, and so far, they’re on the same page about keeping the shop shuttered. “We agreed on it, and he said just go put something on the sign and so I did,” LaJaunie says.
While more than 200 businesses reopened after the Shop Safe guidelines were installed, according to LCG, LaJaunie says each business has its own circumstances to consider in its decision. And Books Too’s building is also owned by the business’s owner and the staff is a small three-person operation.
“[And Books Too] has always been kind of a mom-and-pop homegrown operation,” LaJaunie says. “We want it to be an interactive experience. We want it to be about coming to the store and visiting and talking and seeing what people like.”
“And we’re not an essential business,” he adds. “We’re just an entertainment business. We’re not gonna risk it. We’re not gonna harm our people or anybody else for a buck. It’s just not us.”