When Caveat Emptor Used Books owners Eric and Catherine Brown learned Dec. 29 someone they had been in contact with tested positive for COVID-19, they made the cautious decision. The bookstore kept its doors shut after Christmas for the owners to be tested and notified its customers on the store’s Facebook page.
Eric received his positive test results on New Year’s Day, followed by his wife Catherine’s a few days later.
“We'll take this one last kick in the teeth from 2020 and come back stronger on the other side,” Eric said on the bookstore’s Facebook page.
Eric said he was surprised by how community members showed their support and understanding.
The bookstore will celebrate its fiftieth anniversary this year in June. Since the start of the pandemic, Caveat Emptor’s financial woes have made it difficult for owners to balance their downtown storefront’s rent and employees’ pay.
This was the second time in 2020 Caveat Emptor had to shut its doors. The store was closed to the public from March to September after Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb issued a stay-at-home order.
Its name, “Caveat Emptor”, means “Buyer Beware” in Latin. Eric said he understood it to be a humorous suggestion that the store isn’t responsible for its books’ content but never knew exactly why the store’s founder, Janis Starcs, chose the name.
Eric said the books sustained the local bookstore even through the influx of chain bookstores and the rise of online booksellers like Amazon.
“It’s the books themselves and what they represent. It’s the ethos of walking in this place,” he said. “It's got the ladders, and you’ve got wall-to-wall books. To me, it’s the possibility that it represents.”
Eric was a frequent customer of the bookstore when he was an IU student. In March 2016, when he learned the previous owner Janis Starcs decided to close Caveat Emptor, he swiftly contacted Starcs to buy the store, according to a WFIU article.
Before buying Caveat Emptor, Eric and his wife Catherine owned an online bookstore. Eric also owns an entertainment company that organizes tribute concert events. Both businesses relied on face-to-face interactions with people, which made it particularly hard for the couple to work from home.
Since the beginning of the pandemic, Eric said him and his wife have been adaptive to the economic hardship. He started a bike courier service delivering books himself. He put up roughly 4,000 books and customizable book care packages for sale online.
The couple applied for and were rejected from several business loans and assistance programs, such as the Economic Injury Disaster Loans program by the Small Business Administration.
Caveat Emptor employee John Robinson said the bookstore is a business that cares about the Bloomington community.
Robinson said the owners have given employees as much work as possible throughout the pandemic and paid them as much as they could. Since early June, Eric said their employees only work when he can afford it and when the store has enough orders.
Eric posted on Facebook April 27 he and Catherine couldn’t afford to pay the store’s rent. In response, they received more than 300 care package orders from around the country, many of which were made by IU alumni. They received so many orders they had to close the submission form to catch up and fulfill the orders.
“While there were extra roadblocks and extra hurdles, there was also extra love from the community,” he said. “It kind of all seemed to balance out really well.”
The orders got the bookstore through the summer, Eric said. He said he was amazed by the support, but it was not a sustainable option to continue going to the public for help when the store is in financial trouble. Eric said the store is having trouble paying rent and employees. It would not survive another economic shutdown, he said.
“It’s levels of getting crushed,” he said. “We have to keep a skeleton crew or furlough all our people, which is always devastating. It just kills me every time I have to do that.”
Eric said the biggest challenge of 2021 will be the unknowns from the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic. Retail depends on certainty and planning, he said.
After everything, Eric said his and Catherine’s belief in the value of books and their passion for their job keeps them going. He said they are used to adapting and working overtime from owning several businesses over the years.
“It’s nothing but optimism,” he said.
David Brent Johnson hosts a weekly jazz program at WFIU and has been a customer of the bookstore for more than 30 years.
He said the bookstore draws him in because of the joy, surprise and sense of discovery when he discovers a title he had wanted for a long time. He said local bookstores like Caveat Emptor are hard to replace because he can build friendships with the owners and they learn what types of books he likes.
“I just really like the smell of a used book store, that kind of musty old paperback and hardback smell,” he said.