Eric Ackland wasn’t intending to create an opportunity for a donor to step in and help the community.
The owner of Amazing Books and Records was simply doing what many small business owners were doing: trying to find a way to stay open and move some product.
On Sunday, March 15, as concerns over the spread of COVID-19 were beginning to rise, Ackland made the difficult decision to close his two stores in Squirrel Hill and downtown. He envisioned keeping all five of his employees on staff throughout the closure.
“Initially, my goal was to keep everyone and just cut everyone’s hours by half,” said Ackland. “I said, ‘Look, if we can ramp up online sales, I’ll bring everyone back.’ Then I looked at my bank account. It was getting ugly and I realized I’d have to lay people off.”
The bookstore owner was originally taking orders placed online and through email. He was also giving away free books to members of the community who couldn’t afford to shop while being out of work because of the pandemic.
Eventually, Ackland had to stop giving away books because he “couldn’t triage the number of free books and had to concentrate on paid orders,” he said.
That’s when he had an interesting idea: a book delivery service. Interested patrons would pay $20, plus a $7 delivery fee, and receive three books. The price represented a 30-40% discount for a typical purchase of that number of titles.
Since customers were unable to browse books on the shelves, they provided some general guidelines — the types of books or authors they normally read, preferred genres or a little bit about themselves, allowing Ackland and his remaining staff to make educated guesses on the types of books they should deliver.
“Some people said they like Jewish authors or literary fiction. If you tell me you like philosophy, I’ll send you a philosophy book but if you say 20th-century philosophy or existentialism, I can be more precise,” Ackland explained.
It was then that a customer Ackland “didn’t know personally” reached out. He had bought $100 worth of books for his family and now wanted to help the community and the store.
The patron said he wanted to purchase another 10 packages of books and make them available to the community. The only catch was he wanted to remain anonymous.
Ackland used the Facebook group Jewish Pittsburgh to get the word out to the community. The response was immediate.
“People responded very favorably and excitedly,” Ackland recalled. Some of those responding had recently purchased books and he wanted to ensure the donated books would go to “people that wouldn’t have otherwise been able to afford books. So I skipped those people,” he said.
Once the 10 slots were filled, Ackland created a second post saying, “I’m sorry guys, but the cutoff is done.” It was then that the donor wrote him again saying, “I’d like to purchase another 10 sets of books.”
Dorit Sasson is a Squirrel Hill resident who received books thanks to the anonymous donor.
She called the gift a “beautiful surprise and a genuine act of goodness and chesed.”
Sasson requested books for her children. One of the titles, “The Keeping Quilt” by Patricia Polacco, was a big hit with her daughter. “She keeps asking me to read it again and again,” Sasson said.
Ackland is a firm believer in community bookstores. When he moved to Squirrel Hill, he felt the absence of a bookstore was “a serious deficit. A neighborhood without a bookstore is not a neighborhood,” he said.
He is confident that despite the challenging environment he will be able to remain open, thanks to the online orders he receives, the support of the neighborhood and people like the anonymous donor.
“I’m very grateful to him,” said Ackland. “I would love to be able to share more with people, but he made it possible to provide books for 20 people that I otherwise wouldn’t have been able to. I’m really grateful for what he’s done for me and the community.”
Sasson believes that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought out “the worst in people but it’s also bringing out the best. I think this is something we can all learn from. I’m inspired. I’m even thinking, what if I were to go to Eric and say, ‘I want to sponsor someone anonymously, one package. Not just for your business but to give it to someone.’ I think it’s beautiful to give the feeling that you matter as a person and your business matters.” PJC
David Rullo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.