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How Austin's BookPeople navigated a pandemic closure, celebrated a big birthday and prepared for a holiday season unlike any other
Prior to the pandemic, a committee of BookPeople employees were tasked with planning a series of celebrations in honor of the local business' 50th anniversary on Nov. 11.
Instead, the team scrapped its plans and converted the business—which used to do around 5% of its sales online and hosted more than 300 in-person events a year—into an online machine, offering curbside pickup, worldwide delivery and three or four virtual programs a week.
"When I look back, I think that the beginning part of the year is super clear in my mind," Director of Kids Events and Marketing Eugenia Vela told Austonia, recalling the day in March when the bookstore closed its doors temporarily. "But then in the last few months, it's just such a blur."
Now, just over the hill and perhaps feeling a bit more aged than anticipated, BookPeople is preparing for the next 50 years.
In Austin @BookPeople is a community treasure. Please support them by selling out these signed copies of… https://t.co/JneuMOcXZk— Dan Rather (@Dan Rather)1605556204.0
After local officials announced the cancellation of SXSW in March, BookPeople briefly offered curbside pickup before closing its doors. "It was a sad day because we just didn't know what was coming," Vela said.
Since then, the business has cycled through a partnership with bookshop.org, which offers independent booksellers a way to profit off of online sales, while preparing to reopen for in-person shopping and rebuilding its website to double as an e-commerce platform.
"Suddenly, we were having to do 100% of our sales through our website," Vela said.
Throughout this experience, however, BookPeople has felt the support of its customers, who have tuned in for story times on Instagram Live and committed to shopping local.
Local authors, including Dan Rather, Matthew McConaughey and Austin Kleon, have helped spur sales by donating autographed copies of their books and dropping in—virtually—on their book tours.
"We did see great support," Vela said. "You can't compare it to the 'before times,' really. We're trickling back up there where we used to be."
Despite challenges, including Zoom fatigue, the pandemic revealed silver linings, such as the possibility of a global audience for its online events. Recently, the store hosted a children's story time featuring an author in England.
Another bright spot is the upcoming holiday season, on which the success of local businesses often hinges.
BookPeople is now again open to the public, with occupancy limits and other precautions in place. It encourages customers to shop early to avoid certain pandemic challenges, such as shipping delays and breaks in the publishing supply chain.
"The holidays are so crazy to begin with and then you add a global pandemic," Vela said.
For those hoping to browse in person, Vela recommends visiting the store during weekdays, when patrons are less likely to encounter a socially distanced line out the door.
Online buyers can order directly from the store's new website, which offers subscription services such as BookPeople in a Box—with titles chosen by your local bookseller—and Amplify, which focuses on Black, indigenous and other authors of color.
For now, BookPeople's most popular titles of the year remain in stock. They include McConaughey's memoir "Greenlights"; Kleon's creativity guides; the first volume of Barack Obama's presidential memoirs, "A Promised Land"; and the novels "The Vanishing Half" by Britt Bennett and "Mexican Gothic" by Silvia Moreno-Garcia.
When shopping, Vela cautioned patience, adding that although curbside delivery may seem like an instant service it requires a lot of work on the backend.
"Be kind to retail workers," she said. "That's a free way to support your local business."
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After reaching Stage 4 last week of Austin Public Health's risk-based guidelines, Austin-Travis County is now at the Stage 5 threshold with a seven-day average of 50 hospitalizations and dwindling ICU capacity.
While unenforceable under Gov. Greg's Abbott order against local mandates, vaccinated individuals are asked to choose drive-through and curbside options, outdoor activities, social interactions with limited group sizes, as well as social distance and wearing masks indoors. Partially or unvaccinated individuals are asked to avoid gatherings, travel, dining and shopping, choose curbside and delivery options, as well as wear a mask on essential trips.
Flashing back to early-pandemic times, hospitals are at critical capacity—the 11 county Trauma Service Region of 2.3 million people is fluctuating at 16 staffed beds, according to APH.
In a statement on behalf of Ascension Seton, Baylor Scott & White Health and St. David's Healthcare, a spokesperson said that hospitals are asking residents to "help us and each other" by getting vaccinated and continuing to utilize safety practices to slow the spread of the virus.
According to the statement, a "longstanding" nurse staffing challenge combined with the recent COVID-19 spike is putting "extraordinary pressure" on hospital systems.
Along with the unmitigated spread of the virus in unvaccinated, the more contagious Delta variant is also to blame for the spike in cases. The seven-day moving average of COVID hospitalizations in the Austin area reached the Stage 5 threshold of 50 on Friday, triggering local health officials to ask residents to take action.
Local hospitals have a "surge plan" that includes utilization of "all available patient care space and employees within our hospitals and in other settings" that will go into effect when capacity is hit, according to the statement.
The hospitals are working on sourcing supplemental staff and emphasized that emergency care will still be available but it may involve patient transfers "in order to provide the most appropriate care."
Healthcare systems have hit this threshold previously during the pandemic: the city held an alternate care site at the Austin Convention Center from January to March of this year.
"Our responsibility during this pandemic continues to be balancing our readiness to care for patients with COVID-19, while making sure patients who depend on our hospitals receive needed and timely care," the statement said. "We do not want to see necessary non-COVID care delayed as it was during the early stages of the pandemic."
This story has been updated to after publication to include that Austin has reached the Stage 5 threshold.
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Austin legend Willie Nelson will perform at the Texas Capitol today, his first large performance since the pandemic began, closing out a four-day long march across Central Texas to build support for federal voting protections.
Organized by The Poor People's Campaign, the march began in Georgetown on Wednesday and will end with a 10 a.m. rally at the Capitol featuring appearances from former U.S. Congressman Beto O'Rourke and Rev. Dr. William Barber.
Willie Nelson (with Charlie Sexton & friends) will play a free concert at the Poor People's Campaign march for democracy & justice in Austin this Saturday! https://t.co/zZSA0BpbWA
Sign up to join us and see Willie at 10am Saturday: https://t.co/KrDPIFIvST
— Beto O'Rourke (@BetoORourke) July 29, 2021
The rally calls on Congress to "stop attacks on democracy" by ending the filibuster, pass all provisions of the For the People Act, restore the 1965 Voting Rights Act, raise the federal minimum wage to $15 per hour and pass permanent protections for all 11 million undocumented immigrants.
Nelson denounced election law proposals gaining traction in red states, such as Senate Bill 1 and House Bill 3 in Texas, which 55 House Democrats foiled by fleeing to Washington, D.C., on July 12.
The bills would require additional ID verifications for mail-in ballots, allow partisan poll watchers "free movement" and prohibit elections officials from sending absentee ballot applications to voters who didn't request one.
"Laws making it more difficult for people to vote are unAmerican and are intended to punish people of color, the elderly and disabled," Nelson said. "If you can't win by playing the rules, then it's you and your platform–not everyone else's ability to vote."
The march is in the spirit of the Selma to Montgomery March of 1965, led by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., which protested the blocking of Black Americans' right to vote by Jim Crow laws.