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Checking in with our book distributor: COVID-19

Small Press Distribution (SPD) is Aunt Lute's book distributor. SPD is based out of Berkeley, CA and has been running since 1969. Brent Cunningham, Executive Director of Small Press Distribution, has been with SPD since 1999. He has held different positions, from Sales & Marketing Manager, Operations Director, Managing Director, and this year became the Executive Director. Brent recently took the time to tell us a little bit about how COVID-19 has affected their operations and what precautions they are taking.

How has SPD been affected by the current global crisis? Currently sales are down 60% to 75%, so it’s pretty serious. We have a staff of 10 where we recently had a staff of 15 as well. Somehow we accomplished that with no terminations, just seeing what was coming early enough and holding off on rehires. At the moment we have only one employee in the facility in Berkeley at a time, with the other nine providing remote support. It’s quite, quite challenging and a very strange thing to be trying to manage.

How is SPD moving forward given the Shelter-in-Place order? Why? Being a fairly small operation we feel lucky that we can operate with a high degree of safety relative to some much larger warehouses out there. We are continuing to receive, take orders, and ship, albeit in a limited capacity. We are also continuing to market our books, with maybe a greater focus on our core community. We feel like our values demand being as safe as possible for public health, but that small press books, culture, and really all underground communities, need to understand themselves as serious and, yes, in many ways essential practices even if they’re not exactly essential goods. We know medicine and food are essential necessities in a way books aren’t, and we think there are publishing companies who are using the profound relationship people have with books to justify what is really a profit-driven decision to keep employees working. But at the same time our books, and the community that finds meaning around them and their production, aren’t frivolous indulgences either. To paraphrase something a teacher of mine once said: for the people who find their life’s purpose or at least a reason to hope in these art forms there is absolutely nothing else that can provide what they provide. The idea is to scale back, scale down, keep people first, but don’t forget that books aren’t a luxury either.

What are your primary concerns? Even in good times, one of the hardest things for someone trying to manage a nonprofit is trying to see into the future, and this pandemic makes it ten times harder. We could build plans and contingencies, could fund raise, could scale up and down somewhat deftly, if we just had a fairly firm date when we knew the supply chain would be there. Thanks in large part to the tremendous outpouring of support from individual donors in response to our Gofundme, SPD has a clear financial path forward into about August. But what does the fall look like? Will there be a second wave? Once sales start coming back how do we know they’ll stick? Staff reductions are really the worst for a small staff with intensely-held values around social justice and fair labor practices so hiring again will be a hard trigger to pull.

What safety precautions are in place? Mainly it’s the practice of having only one person on site, but we also use masks and gloves and disinfectant like everyone now does. We are strict about having zero contact between our employees and the shippers, no signed documents passed back and forth, and the like. We also let the boxes sit at least 24 hours in what is probably an excess of caution.

Are the books safe to handle once they arrive at their destinations?

We’re not virologists in any respect of course! And are just reading what comes out as fast as we can. But there seems to be no question the books inside are fine once they reach a destination. How long the virus can remain on cardboard is still being studied. Recent indications, like with groceries brought home, seem to indicate to me that if you wash your hands after handling the boxes you’ll be fine. It’s a risk, but a lot of things are risks. Since everyone is getting everything delivered now, if cardboard was a great carrier of this virus then social distancing wouldn’t be lowering the numbers the way it is.

What are some ways that our readers can support SPD right now?

Patience, first of all. With the reduced staff there can be delays on the books people are ordering. It’s always a good idea, mostly for the sake of the amount our publishers will get from a sale, to avoid the middleperson and order direct from However we are greatly concerned about the independent bookstores who are a key outlet for the most adventurous and important small press material, and no amount of ordering from our site can replace the role they fill in our culture. So buying or supporting your local indie is indirectly a great way to support SPD for the long term.

What have you been reading lately?

Hey, thank you for asking, that’s lovely. For pandemic reading carried by SPD I’ve been rereading Who Was Changed and Who Was Dead by the great and under-read mid-century British fiction writer Barbara Comyns. It’s kind of a satire, but an odd one, and has a lot of random deaths and even an epidemic of some vague sort. I’m also reading Du Bois’s Telegram by Juliana Spahr, which is not carried by SPD. It’s a scholarly book basically about the CIA and related ideologically-driven forces working to co-opt more radical literary movements and directions and authors. Which is, you know, totally irrelevant to today…I’m so glad we solved all that….

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SPD was recently featured on KQED's website in "With Bookstores Closed, a 50-year-old Independent Book Distributor Perseveres." Hear more from other staff members and experience a closer walk through of the packing and shipping process! Read the full article here.

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