To stay afloat, bookstores turn to Web donors

Julie Bosman • New York Times News Service /

Published Aug 18, 2013 at 05:00AM

For years, independent bookstores have taken creative steps to fight off challenges from Amazon.com and the superstores by building in-house espresso bars, hosting members-only lunches with authors and selling birthday cards, toys and trinkets.

In 2013, it has come to this: Asking their customers for donations.

Crowd-funding is sweeping through the bookstore business, the latest tactic for survival in a market that is dominated by Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, and Barnes & Noble, with its dizzying in-store selection. It is hardly a sustainable business model, but it buys some time and gives customers a feeling of helping a favorite cause and even preserving a civic treasure.

In San Francisco, a campaign for Adobe Books successfully raised $60,000 on Indiegogo.com in March after the store faced a rent increase and nearly went out of business.

In Asheville, N.C., the Spellbound Children’s Bookshop collected more than $5,000 when it appealed to customers for help moving to a new location.

In the Flatiron district of New York, Books of Wonder raised more than $50,000 in an online campaign last fall after the recession and other losses depleted its financial resources.

Websites like Indiegogo and Kickstarter, originally made for the public financing of creative projects, have simplified the logistics of raising money, and bookstores facing financial distress are seizing the opportunity. They can set up a webpage explaining what their fundraising goal is, why they are asking for it and what the deadline is. Donors pitch in as little as $5 or $10 with a few clicks and a credit card number. Peter Glassman, who owns Books of Wonder, said he turned to a fundraising campaign only as a last resort.

“I thought, given the financial strains we’re under at the moment, perhaps this is the way to prevent us from getting into a really desperate situation,” Glassman said.

He said it was the first time in 30 years that he was willing to admit that the store needed help.

“You never tell people your problems,” he said. “The worst you say is, ‘Business is a little tight.’”

But that kind of tough-it-out attitude seems to have gone the way of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The independent bookstores that remain have taken a hard-nosed approach to their business, more willing to experiment with new technologies and to tap the carefully cultivated loyalty of their customers.

Josh Mills, the longtime manager of The Bookstore in Chico, Calif., made a public appeal for $35,000 on Indiegogo when the owner decided to close the store and Mills stepped up to buy it.

In less than two months, he had collected $36,068, mostly in chunks of $15 and $25 from locals who were outraged at the thought of the bookstore shutting down. Donations seemed to come from everywhere: Mills received $25 from one former customer in Hawaii who heard about the store’s plight via email from a friend in France. Acquaintances threw local fundraisers, serving wine, crostini and deviled eggs, and then funneled the money into the online campaign.

“I felt strange about asking for money that way — baring my soul and sharing my personal business is not what I do,” said Mills, who now owns the store. “Bookstores are sort of an endangered industry for lots of reasons. But it would have left a huge hole in our little community if we had gone away.”

Independents have seen their business suffer in recent years for all of the usual reasons. Many customers have shifted their purchases from print books to ebooks. Amazon’s market share keeps growing, making it the biggest seller of books in the country. And the price of rent has gone up in city centers.

A price war between Amazon and Overstock.com, another online retailer, that flared up last month resulted in print books being discounted even more steeply than usual — sometimes close to 60 percent — a price cut that a small bookstore cannot match. (Amazon and Overstock can make up for their losses on books by selling jewelry, furniture and diapers.)

But owners of independent bookstores also reason that if they cannot compete with Amazon on price, they will attract customers by having a more carefully chosen selection. If Barnes & Noble has uninformed salesclerks, theirs will have the fluency of a Ph.D. candidate in literature.

And if their customers have a fierce attachment to their local neighborhood bookstore, as many claim to do, then bookstore owners reason that they should test that loyalty by making a direct appeal for donations.

“I think it’s an indication of the emotional connection that many customers have with their bookstores,” said Daniel Goldin, the owner of the Boswell Book Co. in Milwaukee. “Every customer who buys a book at an independent could do it in a different way, a cheaper way. A lot of customers position us in their head like the nonprofits they support, like a humane society or a park.”

The American Booksellers Association, a trade group, said the number of bookstores it represents had grown slightly in the last several years, despite an overall drop in the last decade — it currently has 1,632 members, down from about 2,400 in 2002.

“Amazon obviously continues to grow,” said Oren Teicher, the chief executive of the association. “It’s not like we’re without challenges.”

Seeking financial support from customers, he said, is an example “of how a combination of technology and localism is helping stores get funded that 20 years ago would have been impossible to do.”

Many independent bookstores said that despite the challenges to their business, they were doing just fine. Some of them are crowd-funding not as a means of survival, but as a way to expand.

BookCourt, a neighborhood fixture in Brooklyn, is one of the stores that has been thriving despite competition from Amazon and Barnes & Noble. (A two-story Barnes & Noble is just three blocks away.) It recently started an ambitious online campaign to help pay for the purchase of a new bookstore space in the Catskills that will open next spring.

Zack Zook, the events and development director for the store, said he was inspired by other online fundraising campaigns for short films and art projects that he had occasionally participated in for the last several years.

“There’s something that feels really neutral about throwing a hundred bucks in a pot,” Zook said. “People like to be affiliated with a mission. And with any independent bookstore, it’s almost like a nonprofit — there’s really no money to play with.”

Glassman, of Books of Wonder, said he had been gratified by all of the support.

“It was very touching to know how much people care,” Glassman said.

He acknowledged the fundraising campaign was a short-term fix.

“It helped, but it didn’t solve it,” he said. “But we’re not in danger anymore of closing tomorrow.”

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