By Rachel Aydt
Late last month, St. Mark’s Bookstore in New York City launched its first crowdfunding campaign on a website called Lucky Ant. The blunt truth is that it’s a last ditch effort for survival. It’s that simple. In this climate, they can’t afford to keep paying their rent of over $20,000, which was already reduced by over $2,000 earlier this year until November. The owners, Bob Contant and Terence McCoy, hope that if they raise the cash (and they have to meet their lofty $23,000 goal to get a red cent of the donations), they’ll be able fund a relocation into a new space, as well as to create more sophisticated online selling tools.
The store has been an anchor to the community since 1977, but that community has shifted in ways that must have been unimaginable in the ’70s, when both beats and punks, both probably spillover from the nearby hallowed CBGB’s, filled the aisles with readings and other shenanigans. Now, there’s a gaping hole across the street where Cooper Union School has razed an entire square block, and I-beams are being dropped into cavernous spaces filled with concrete. Next door there is a McDonald’s, and of course a solid handful of Starbucks storefronts within walking distance.
Even with the close proximity of college kids that fill up Cooper Union, and its colossal neighbor NYU, where does this leave an indie bookstore?
Saving Santorini’s Community Hub
Betting on crowdfunding isn’t a new game, and it’s one that has worked well for other bookshops around the world who aim to either build themselves from the ground up or save themselves from extinction, from Chicago to Europe and back again. Atlantis Books, located on a pristine cliff overlooking the Mediterranean Sea cliff on the island of Santorini, in Oia, Greece was able to drum up 170 contributors to raise $40,540 this April on the crowdfunding site Indiegogo.com to rescue their sagging venture and enhance their infrastructure, a tidy $540 over their request.
Their online plea reached directly to the heart of the matter, illuminating just how much is at stake for our culture if “We the People” let the storefronts lock their doors and throw away the key: “We’ve been more than just a bookstore: we’ve hosted bookmaking sessions with the local primary school, two weddings, three births, three Super 8 Film Festivals, the First and Last Annual International Tzatziki Festival and a host of readings. We’ve cooked thousands of big dinners and watched thousands of sunsets from our terrace. We’ve argued about music, art, and literature and, of course, we’ve danced amongst the books in the nighttime. We’ve brought hundreds of writers, artists and bibliophiles together from around the world. To create Atlantis, before we laid the first book, the founders spent months raising money. Aside from a few thousand culled from student loans and funneled to cover lean times, that initial business plan and capital kept us going for a solid seven years…Unfortunately those years are past.” Their call for action was met with gusto, and so there they shall remain, at least for the time being.
The reason crowdfunding works sometimes is that the instinctual community bonding experience is happening, and it’s as old as time. You give me money, I give you something in return (in this case, culture, refuge, and community), and you take pride in knowing that you paid for a part of it. A bookstore is a unique point of gathering that marries readings with leisurely browsing time and social interactions between a staff and their customers, and all of those salient intersections of our communities are being erased in droves with each door that slams shut. Lucky Ant aims to make neighbors feel like a part of an ant army, really. As you move through the website to donate to your cause of choice, they take time to welcome you and thank you for helping out “an ant in need.”
Silicon Valley Rallies to Help Bookstore
Across the United States in Menlo Park, California, Kepler’s Bookstore, a similarly indie presence through the decades that’s played living room host to countless writers and their supporters for over 50 years, hit rock bottom in 2005 before being rescued with donations from loyal clientele. Now they’re trying to reshape their business model. At a “Kepler’s Conference” last month, Praveen Madan, a new owner, and also of The Booksmith in San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury neighborhood, gathered 80 volunteers to hash out a new long-term two-pronged business plan. He used the “Future Search” corporate meeting method to develop an action plan which upends the traditional conference model on its head (executives breaking from the pack and coming back with a large plan for change) by pulling together the people who will actually be implementing the changes. “It’s more grassroots and organic,” he says. For Madan, this meant inviting 80 people across the spectrum of the bookstore’s life, from author to shopper to publisher. Book critic Ron Charles, who reported from the conference for the Washington Post, observed this overall tone at the event: “The participants raged against Amazon, worried about shrinking margins and fantasized about virtual shelves and author holograms.”
Kepler’s new model could look like this: first comes a non-profit structure that will support the cultural events side, public education, and literacy; down the road, the second prong could be a public ownership model where actual shares are sold through an SEC platform (Madan likens this potential model to the successful community ownership of the Green Bay Packers football team). Essentially, patrons will purchase shares and own a piece of the pie. If this goes down with any measure of success, it could open up a slew of mini IPO hoedowns across the cultural transcontinental highway.
In NYC, Times are Tough, but Change is Possible
Ownership isn’t on the table for individual investors of St. Mark’s Lucky Ant campaign, but neighborhood cultural collateral is at stake. At the time of publication, just over $6,000 had been raised — one quarter of what they need to collect in the next two weeks in order to keep a cent. Contant has faith in his neighbors, though, forgiving their ability to welcome franchises with open arms (though for the record, three blocks away, a Barnes & Nobles was shuttered on Astor Place after a long run). With giants like B&N in the wake, there’s no telling what the outcome will be.
If they get their seed money, a stronger online sales presence has to become a part of a new, self-sustaining future. “Basically what we want to do is create an online experience similar to what you’d have browsing in a store. You can’t browse on Amazon. If you’re interested in a particular subject, such as critical theory, you’d be able to browse a section in a subject area. That’s what people do in a store that doesn’t currently translate to the online experience,” says Contant. What seems to mystify him is how publishers can be so blind to the free marketing they receive from stores. Clearly, there are those shoppers who pass through stores with their iPhones in hand ready to jump on cheaper prices online, but were it not for the browsing spaces, where would the desire to pick up a book and read it come from, exactly? “The greatest benefit any bookstore has is that customers can browse through it. Book publishing companies know this, but they could be doing more…they need a showcase for books.”
For Madan in California the responsibility if the success lands squarely on the shoulders of the bookstore owners, whose vision, he believes, needs to be firmly planted in the “community engagement model.” In the last six years, he explains, Kepler’s has partnered with over 120 different organizations to raise a total of $200,000 for community causes that range from libraries in need to breast cancer research. “We’re competing against giant corporations like Amazon; companies with tons of resources. There’s no way we can compete. So we have to focus on what do we do better than them. To me, Kepler’s is about our connection with the community. Our conference wasn’t about fundraising and asking for donations — it was about building community, and a [metaphorical, for now anyway] joint sense of ownership…I believe that guilt tripping your customers and complaining about Amazon and high rent and begging, are outdated strategies. That is not the way one can build a thriving, sustainable enterprise. You can get shortened results by doing these things, but in long run it’s not what people respond to.”