Small business bookstore adjusts to pandemic and Vassar bubble

Courtesy of Katelyn Jo.

For Vassar students, COVID-19 has meant a sharp break from normal life. From Zoom learning to the demise of Halloweekend’s tented party on Noyes Circle, the pandemic has upended the Vassar experience. This semester’s closed-campus model has not only proved to be hugely transformative for students, but also for the small businesses in Arlington who rely on Vassar’s campus community for business. One of the many establishments forced to rethink how to survive through the pandemic and adjust to an uncertain future is Three Arts Bookstore, nestled inconspicuously on Collegeview Avenue between Bacio’s and the Juliet.

Vassar students who have long frequented the store found themselves with a shopping experience far more enjoyable than engaging with Amazon’s storming of the bookseller’s bubble. The shop’s intimate flair serves as a gladly nostalgic trip back to a time before brands like Barnes & Noble transformed a scene once dominated by small businesses like Three Arts.

For the many students for whom periodic trips to Three Arts were a pleasant treat, the man to thank is Walter Effron, who has kept the family-owned business flourishing since 1982. With COVID-19 and Vassar’s island model, even Effron, a seasoned small business proprietor, has found this year to be a challenge. 

When the pandemic forced the College to shift online and New York businesses to close in the spring, Effron never completely closed down his store—well, the front door was locked, but he was still inside. By making a creative array of adaptations to his classic business model, Effron managed to make ends meet. He explained that he had a sign on the door asking customers to knock for front-door pickup, took orders via phone and email, did some local deliveries and even had his supplier ship some items directly to customers. 

Effron also suffered from the cancellation of spring events. Without events at the College and the Boardman Road Branch Library, things got much quieter for Three Arts. He added that, “All of the business that we got with graduation and reunions was all gone, of course.”

By cutting operating expenses down to the bare minimum—by then, he was running the shop without any help—and relying on a certain amount of loyalty and concern from his most regular customers, Effron was able to keep his business from shutting down completely. Effron also found some relief in the Paycheck Protection Plan (PPP), a federal program that temporarily provided small businesses with funds to cover payroll costs, which allowed him to hire an additional employee. He paid her advance for her work given the narrow window to spend PPP funds. 

After enduring months of a struggling economy, the biggest hit to Three Arts came when the College returned in August. Effron explained, “I had teachers in the past who gave me a list of assigned class reading books, I would order the books and shelve some here […] and that didn’t develop.” Quite simply, even though he had stocked shelves, no one has actually made it over to the store to buy them. All of the orders that he has taken from Vassar have happened over email or telephone, and at times, the Office of Student Activities has come to the store to pick up books for distribution on campus. 

As for coming to campus? While Effron explained that he would be open to hosting small events, he reminded me that he currently only has a single employee who works in the store one day a week, and that at the end of the day, “The resources to have a presence on campus are beyond what I would be able to do at this point.” Right now, the business necessary to hire additional help is simply nonexistent. He did sound relatively optimistic about an event at the Boardman Road Branch Library this past Saturday, where an author was able to attend virtually. While he is skeptical about a future that’s reliant on virtual event programming, he’s hoping for the best.

Although Three Arts doesn’t have a website, Effron assured me that as long as students are willing to take the time to call or email, he’s perfectly willing to drop off students’ orders here on campus. Despite all that’s happened in the past eight months, Effron has managed to keep up with most new releases, and even if there’s something not in stock, he’s always happy to get it for his customers. With the holiday season quickly approaching, Three Arts now carries calendars, Christmas cards and other seasonal products, and also offers free gift-wrapping for any purchase.

Effron’s expectations for the spring semester, where students will be confined to campus in a similar closed-campus model? He anticipates that there probably won’t be too much more to do, telling me simply that he will be “Continuing to reduce expenses and hoping to get enough sales to cover them.” 

With nearly four decades managing his family’s business under his belt, Effron has learned to be resilient—he sounds like a classically strong, stiff-upper-lip sort of guy. As we concluded our discussion, he apologized for not being able to offer a brighter vision for the future. At the end of the day, he doesn’t know what the future holds for Three Arts, an Arlington mainstay. Right now, all there is to do is simply focus on staying afloat. 

To place orders at Three Arts, students can call (845) 471-3640.

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