I am an employee of Buffalo Street Books, having worked as outreach coordinator here for roughly the past year. The opinions expressed below are entirely mine and not those of the owner, other employees of Buffalo Street Books, or The Ithaca Post.
Also, when I refer here to independent local bookstores, I am referring quite specifically to comprehensive new bookstores. This is in no way meant to denigrate the importance of any of the fantastic used bookstores in town, nor of Colophon Books or either of the on-campus bookstores.
What I am going to propose here is not a bailout. The unfortunate truth is that a bailout at this stage would be a temporary fix. I am proposing that members of the community buy out the bookstore and run it on a cooperative model.
HERE WE ARE at the wake. For the past few days, I have sat quietly by while people queue up to express their sympathies regarding the closing of Buffalo Street Books, announced last Thursday. There have been three prevalent lines of discussion, each one of which bears a bit of looking at.
1. What the hell happened?
2. This is a terrible loss for the city of Ithaca (or the variant, this is disgraceful for the city of Ithaca).
3. If Ithaca can’t support a local independent bookstore, who can?
Yes, it is a terrible loss. But is it a quantifiable loss? It’s not as if it will suddenly become impossible to buy books in Ithaca. No book that you could have gotten on our shelves will now become utterly inaccessible, I promise you.
In addition to simply providing a excellent selection of books, a local independent bookstore provides the community with readings by local and national authors, facilitates reading groups that are open to the community, hosts benefits for worthy local agencies, provides performance and rehearsal space for local theater groups and sells books to local libraries and schools at deep discount or at cost. Perhaps most importantly, we provide a space in the center of the community where literary arts can flourish.
Of course, none of these things bring in revenue, and all of them are a little tricky to put a price tag on. But I would submit that everyone who has ever bought a book in an independent bookstore has done just that. If you buy a $30 hardcover at an independent rather than at Barnes & Noble or Amazon, either of which might carry the same book at 50% off, you have said it is worth $15 to you to have all of the benefits of a local independent bookstore. If we imagine that Amazon is selling every book it has at an average of 20% off (this number drops precipitously if your interests stray from the mainstream), then by buying your books at a local independent, you are saying it is worth 20% of your book budget to have that independent there.
Beyond the concrete, there is serendipity of place unique to a local bookstore. It’s an environment where everything on the shelf has been hand selected by someone in the store, a member of the community. Any Borders will look like any other Borders, even if they go through the trouble of tacking on a local interest section. In a local independent bookstore, the whole store is a local interest section. Part of the magic of a local bookstore isn’t finding what you came in for, but finding something you never knew existed in the first place. By providing a space for readers to meet authors, authors to meet authors, poets to meet playwrights and so on in endless combination, a local independent bookstore waters the seeds of talent within a literary arts community.
Let’s move back to question one, which will quickly bring us to question three and the variant of question two.
What happened was that the business was losing money. Every year, something new got tried and every year, things worked out about the same. Gains in one area were barely enough to compensate for losses in another. And as will inevitably happen in a situation like this, the owner, who I have the utmost respect for, got tired of lifting the load by himself.
Was it a poorly run business? Not at all. It was innovative and perceptive in a quickly changing market. There was a constant search for options that would save the store. A program was developed to sell books to students on both campuses that has been wildly successful. The store has managed to become an integral part of nearly every aspect of the local literary community, has established an online presence and has explored every possible solution that would have staved off the situation we find ourselves in now.
Believe me when I tell you that the store was in an ideal spot to survive.
Included in the options explored was the idea of converting the bookstore to a not-for-profit model. This would mean the bookstore itself would run about the same, but the owner or our staff would run a constant capital campaign to make up the difference between sales and operating costs. This move would have been unprecedented, but it looked to be a long road ahead and one we were unlikely to reach the end of.
The fact of it is, the market will not support a local independent bookstore in a town the size of Ithaca. It simply won’t. It is easy enough to blame everyone who spends their money on Amazon or Barnes & Noble, who doesn’t wear their Shop Local pin proudly, who got a Kindle for Christmas. But that’s not the point. If you look at the terms of the market, it is inevitable that a local independent bookstore will fail in all but the largest markets. We can’t sell you a bestseller for 45% off. We can’t stock every title in print and some that aren’t. And that’s not going to change. The market has spoken and it has said, No, Ithaca does not get to have a local independent bookstore.
But where is it written that the market dictates everything that goes on in our community? Why should it dictate? The thinking behind Local First at its heart asks the consumer to go against the natural drives of the market (where can I get it cheaper faster bigger) and to purchase in a way that supports less concrete advantages. In very few towns and cities has the Local First philosophy been taken more to heart. And still the market is squeezing local businesses out of our town.
What is necessary in this case is for the community and its members to realize their power not as consumers, as players within the game of the market, but as a community. The market says an independent bookstore isn’t possible in Ithaca. It’s time for the community to have its say.
Ithaca, if you want to have a local independent bookstore, I’ve got one for you. You’ve just got to come get it.
Understand I’m not talking about a bailout. I’m talking about a community buy out. At the end of this process, the participating community, and I’m talking a cooperative of dozens if not hundreds, would own the bookstore outright.
If you’re still reading, please keep in mind all the numbers below are highly approximate. But they should get the idea across.
It would take somewhere in the range of $200,000 to buy out the bookstore, including everything on the shelves. For a while, I thought the way to do this would be to find ten people who truly believe Ithaca should have an independent bookstore downtown who each have $20,000 to sink in. But let’s face it, I don’t know ten people who have a spare $20,000. But what if we think about it differently? What if that amount was split into shares of $250 a piece. I know quite a few people with $250 who truly believe Ithaca should have an independent bookstore. And that amount could buy them one of 800 initial shares in an organization that would buy out and then own the bookstore. If they’ve got more, it could buy them a couple shares.
I also know a number of people who don’t have a spare $250 but still believe Ithaca should have an independent bookstore. I’ll get to those people in a minute.
If it works, what does it look like? It looks an awful lot like a corporation, one that would elect a board of trustees and hire a CEO. Like a corporation, shareholders would have a stake and a vote in major decisions regarding the future of the bookstore, , and, obviously, would receive a discount on books.
Are you going to get that money back? No more than you’re going to get your PBS pledge back. What you’re doing with that money is helping to buy a present for your community. You’re saying not just that Ithaca wants an independent bookstore, but that it truly deserves one and will do what it takes to have one. And when this happens, that bookstore won’t belong to one person or a small group of business partners who have to share the heavy financial burden. It will belong to a community of member-owners, with each member lifting the weight they can.
If it all works and Ithaca owns its own bookstore, what does year two look like? Or year five?
Being approximate, let’s say the bookstore, left to its own devices, faces an annual shortfall of $100,000 a year. This, incidentally, is fractional to what an organization like the Hangar Theatre would face if their only source of income were ticket sales and they had to pay all of their ushers. This is where the folks with more time than money become part of the project. About half the above figure can be accounted for in labor costs, just to staff the desk. That cost could be offset by a committed corps of volunteers, each of whom “buy” a piece of ownership with their labor. A worker-owner would earn an equitable share of the store through his or her labor. Essentially, if each share is worth $250, a worker-owner could “buy” a share with twenty-five hours of labor.
Which leaves us with a $50,000 shortfall. Fundraising campaigns and member drives would have to be run periodically throughout the year, every year. This is a daunting amount of work, but within this model, instead of a single owner and his staff of ten trying to make this happen, it would be a community of worker- and member-owners.
I’m talking about a community buy out, and one that would need to get off the ground fast. If this bookstore closes, another one will not rise to take its place, I will practically guarantee it. The difference in start-up cost and effort between opening a new bookstore from scratch and buying out an existing bookstore is huge.
And let me again stress, this is not a money-making opportunity. No savvy entrepreneur is going to exploit this newly created lack in the market because there is no lack in the market. The lack will lie in the community and it is in the community where it will be keenly felt.
There are any number of adjustments and additions that can and should be made to this plan. I’m just throwing sparks onto a fire that is otherwise dying out. If they catch, it will be entirely due to you.
If you believe this city needs and deserves a local bookstore; if, like me, you are appalled at the idea of living in a city without one; if you are ready to put your money and time where your mouth is; if you are ready for Ithaca to live up to its reputation rather than bask in it ; if you are ready to be part of a community that decides for itself what it looks like, rather than allowing itself to be shaped by outside forces …
… then let’s give it a try.
At this point, I’m looking to gauge interest. And by interest, I mean willingness to commit financially. I’m just a poor kid, but I’m putting it out there right now that I’m in for $1000. Four shares. It’s what I can afford right now. There are 796 to go.
Bob Proehl is the outreach coordinator for Buffalo Street Books. He is the former owner of No Radio Records, and is the author of The Gilded Palace of Sin. He also writes about literature for the Ithaca Post. Anyone interested in more information or in participating should please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.