MSA Member Dispatches From Home: Applewood Books
May 12. 2020
By Phil Zuckerman
Reporting in from Bedford, Massachusetts. Here we are staying safe, my wife Disty and I and our golden doodle Noi. We are lucky to have a house in a semi-rural suburb outside of Boston where we can shelter in place, get out for walks, and I can take the daily ten-minute drive to my empty office to pick up the mail, take care of technological glitches, and survey the stuff of 44 years of continuous business and wonder, “Will it ever be the same?” “Will I, my family, my friends be taken down by the pandemic”? “Will Applewood Books, my 44-year-old baby survive?” “Will my beloved MSA endure?” ???? This is a time when fear and uncertainty is running rampant. But I determined from Day One of isolation that this is an opportunity to examine, plan, and execute. The only quote I’ve ever had hanging in my office is from Albert Einstein: “No problem can be solved from the same level of consciousness that created it.” In isolation, I am trying as hard as I can to be thinking like Einstein suggests. My wife tells me that each day I am looking more and more like him. Trying like hell to change my level of consciousness. I am also determined to get a haircut.
I was in Charleston, South Carolina on Thursday, March 12 when the first wave of concern came. I was heading down to see Susan Tudor and the Cummer Museum for a fun event with Applewood’s Book Party. On Friday the 13th, in consultation with Susan, we decided to cancel the event. Things were starting to get crazy and I thought it better not to spread or catch any disease or abandon my wife back home. I parked the van at a friend’s business and flew back home. My JetBlue flight was empty.
By the time I returned, Massachusetts had not yet closed all businesses, but we closed Applewood to nine of our ten-member staff. Kristen Vellinga, my assistant who lived nearby, was the volunteer office occupant. By the middle of that week nearly all of our customers were closed or were closing, and the writing was on the wall. We needed to prepare ourselves for a protracted period of time without revenue. By the end of the week, Massachusetts businesses had been shuttered, and we realized that we needed to cut our overhead quickly or we would drown. First, we reluctantly laid off our customer care group, since there were no customers to care for; then we downsized our production and operations. We were left with half the number of people. The ones who left were amazingly gracious. The ones who stayed are the core of our business. And we quickly came up with a plan.
We had never worked virtually as a team. So, the first day in isolation, we got a zoom account like everyone else in the world. We already had a cloud-based VoIP (voice over IP) phone system that allowed us to answer our calls from anywhere. We also had a VPN that allows us to log into our network from home, but we added a piece of software called Splashtop that allowed us to install software on internal computers that can be controlled by computers externally. A lot of that last week of March was trying to lay the groundwork for surviving the weeks/months/years to come. Oh, and throw in my 69th birthday. Hard to celebrate that with social distancing.
As a company, with 90% of our customers closed, we needed to pivot to a marketplace/product mix that would sustain us at some smaller size. Fortunately, we had been working on a project that was perfect for our new virtual life—a series of road trips in puzzle book form. This is a project we originally developed for big box stores, but as the product became a celebration of museums and other mostly non-profit roadside sites, we repurposed the program as a series of small souvenirs and inspiring virtual or real guides to culture along American highways. Now, we are spending our days as a team figuring out how we’ll be able to sell these fabulous books when sites reopen and continuing to develop titles in the series.
Having owned and run my business since 1976, I feel that I have seen a lot: upturns, downturns, no cash, lots of cash, government closures, and disasters of my own making. But never had I seen anything like this. Business stopped everywhere. People stopped buying; people stopped paying…and with no clear time when things would restart. As an advisor to other small businesses, I realized that some kinds of business had more pain than others. Our mainstay customers—museum stores, national park sites, mom and pop gift shops, book stores—all are shuttered and their futures uncertain. Bleak moments for our customers. Time to hunker down. Time to pivot.
Life and loss show us the need to put one foot in front of another; to move forward even in the lowest moments of life—discarding what can’t be used, keeping what is good, enhancing it, or just cleaning house, moving forward to something meaningful. We are all entrepreneurs, creating our lives in our own visions. This resiliency drives us in moments like these.
We must assume that social and economic life will resume. That we will all play a role in that. Through our life journeys, we are always buoyed by our MSA community—yesterday, today, and tomorrow. What do we have right now? We have each other. From my living room, I am excited to watch MSA transforming itself. In doing so, it will help deliver the promises of this moment and all the moments to come. Connecting us in new ways, while maintaining the old. I see a future of great promise where the community can be stronger and bigger, and we can more easily benefit personally and professionally from the value we give to one another.
Phil Zuckerman is a Vendor Member of MSA, a past Vendor Advisor to the MSA Board, and the founder of Applewood Books. Since 1976, Applewood has published books for American cultural travelers. Applewood’s mission is to build a picture of America through its primary sources. It has more than 2,500 titles in print.