An independent bookstore in Arizona tries to survive a pandemic
by Jonathan Vatner
Cindy Dach, Marketing: Fashion and Related Industries ’89
Even before the pandemic, independent bookstores had to find creative ways to turn a profit when a lower price was always a few clicks away. But since COVID-19 closed businesses and ended most in-person gatherings, bookstores have been fighting to survive.
Changing Hands, a 45-year-old Arizona institution with locations in Tempe and Phoenix, is no exception. The bookstore, listed as one of the top indies in the country by Real Simple and Reader’s Digest, temporarily closed in mid-March because of the virus. Since then, Cindy Dach, co-owner and general manager, has been working nonstop in ever-changing conditions.
The two locations reopened with limited hours in late June. Despite the mandatory mask policy, Dach is unsure whether to stay open, since Arizona has become a global pandemic hotspot. “Everybody defines ‘safe’ differently,” she says.
For one, she is worried about her staff. Dach has always been careful to hire “book geeks” with diverse backgrounds and literary appetites, to ensure top-notch customer service. She invests in training and empowers her 60 employees. Unfortunately, COVID-19 has turned them into the mask police.
These five books are perennial favorites for Changing Hands customers.
“The people who work in my bookstores came here because they wanted to interact with the community and sell books,” she says. “Now they walk around asking, ‘Would you please put your mask over your nose?’”
The pandemic has also cut off a major revenue stream: events. Changing Hands used to depend on income from its more than 500 events per year, not only for authors on book tours but also popular and profitable parties like a ticketed Harry Potter affair, complete with costumes and butterbeer. Virtual events have not been as successful. They are “incredibly time-consuming” to set up and often sell just one book, or none at all. Online writing workshops have been more popular.
“I’m now competing with all other bookstores hosting the same authors,” Dach says. “Would people really prefer to watch an author conversation on Zoom or Crowdcast over a show on Netflix?”
The Phoenix location’s First Draft Book Bar reopened briefly before transitioning to takeout and curbside pickup only. The bar serves beer, wine, mead, and cleverly named treats like the Much Ado About Nut-Thing and Eat, Pray, Olives, plus addictive chocolate-chip sea-salt cookies.
On a positive note, online book sales are brisk—but even that became a challenge when many packing supply companies ran out of inventory. Dach is now ordering packing supplies for the rest of the year, including the holiday season, to ensure the store is well-stocked.
“It’s scary, because we don’t know what the future holds,” she says. “But we are pivoting and adapting as quickly as we can.”
Dach sells her own embroideries, in addition to jewelry, ceramics, prints, and other crafts in her Made Art Boutique, located next to the Eye Lounge gallery. (The boutique has been closed for a few months, but she plans to reopen it soon, along with a new brewery in the adjacent space.) Her favorite embroidery subjects are people, cats, and cacti. “In Arizona, you do anything with a succulent on it, and it’s going to sell.” She has been getting commissions for embroideries, too. “I have to sit on my couch and turn on a fluffy movie and embroider. It’s been such a gift because it forces me to relax.”
Dach moved to Phoenix with her husband, Greg Esser, a public art administrator, in the mid-’90s. She joined the events team at Changing Hands and was soon promoted to marketing director. In 2005, she became co-owner.
In addition to bookselling, Dach works to improve the cultural landscape of the community. She and Esser founded Eye Lounge art collective in 2000, a rotating group of 12 local artists who operate what is now one of the longest-running galleries in Arizona. (The gallery is now open by appointment only.)
With the opening of the gallery and the 2005 founding of the Roosevelt Row Community Development Corporation—and lots more work in advocacy and community-building—the couple has been instrumental in turning a once-blighted Phoenix neighborhood into a hopping arts district. For all of her entrepreneurial and civic-minded achievements, she received a 2019 ATHENA Businesswoman of the Year Award from the Greater Phoenix Chamber of Commerce.
“I’m a huge believer that we’re stewards of places, stewards of time, stewards of objects,” she says. “More and more, kindness and a community focus are the only things that get me out of bed in the morning.”