ITHACA, N.Y. — When one thinks of college towns, they conjure up images of manicured campus quads, bustling coffeeshops, and enough indie bookstores to make a bibliophile’s heart soar. Yet, local book lovers are clutching their chests for a different reason this week – the possible closure of a beloved feature of the local literary scene, Buffalo Street Books.

According to a press release from Buffalo Street Books’ Executive Board, the bookstore, which is located inside the DeWitt Mall downtown and functions as a cooperative much like how Greenstar does with groceries, is in dire financial straits. It has failed to be profitable since its conversion to cooperative ownership in 2011, struggling against an increasing trend towards online purchases dominated by retailers like Amazon.com, which started as a bookstore in the 1990s.

“Though we have cut the yearly losses, the store continues to lose money every single year. Through cost-cutting measures, loans, ownership drives, and dedicated and creative management, we have continued to keep the store functioning. That is no longer possible.”

The emergency meeting, which is open not just to the 700 share owners but to any interested community members, is intended to address two urgent issues – the first and foremost is generating enough money to keep the doors of Buffalo Street Books open. The second is to come up with ideas to reform the store’s current business model to something that will allow it to financially sustain itself without losing the unique appeal it has to Ithacans and visitors. The letter states that if these issues are not successfully addressed, than the bookstore will likely close its doors by the end of the year.

The meeting on Buffalo Street Books’ future is scheduled for next Thursday October 12th at 7 PM at the bookstore at 215 North Cayuga Street, in the DeWitt Mall next to Greenstar DeWitt.

Opening as the Bookery II back in 1981, the store was renamed Buffalo Street Books in 2009. When the store was preparing to close in February 2011, members of the Ithaca community banded together in a community purchase from the owners, raising over $250,000 and officially launching the bookstore as a co-op a couple months later. A share in the bookstore can be obtained for $250, which grants voting rights, patronage dividends, and a portion of potential profits.

A full text of the release can be found below.

***

Dear Buffalo Street Books owner,

I am writing to you to ask your immediate participation in decisions that will determine the fate of our bookstore.

Six years ago, many of us learned that Buffalo Street Books was about to close. Bob Proehl, an employee of the store, rallied the community around a radical ideal: that we – the people of Ithaca – could become the owners of our own bookstore. We could act to keep an independent bookstore in Ithaca even if that store was not economically viable.

And it worked. More than 700 people bought shares in the bookstore. We restructured as a cooperative, and we kept an independent bookstore in Ithaca. Buffalo Street Books has remained an amazing literary hub for Ithaca.

Unfortunately, that community spirit did not translate into making the store profitable. Though we have cut the yearly losses, the store continues to lose money every single year. Through cost-cutting measures, loans, ownership drives, and dedicated and creative management, we have continued to keep the store functioning. That is no longer possible.

In Bob’s 2011 letter, he wrote “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.” That remains true. Bob also wrote that cooperative ownership was just part of the answer. “Fundraising campaigns and member drives,” Bob wrote, “would have to be run periodically throughout the year, every year.” That did not happen with any regularity. Owners generously stepped up to save the store, but we haven’t developed a plan to make us sustainable and we haven’t taken advantage of the commitment of our owners.

If we are to survive, we need to do two things. First, we need to raise money, quickly. Second, we need to consider the steps we can take to make the store sustainable. Those steps will involve asking owners to be more directly involved in the store.  Join us on Thursday, October 12th at 7PM in the store to discuss the future of Buffalo Street Books and decide if we can continue.

I want to emphasize that we need the active involvement and commitment of owners like you if we are to continue beyond the end of the year. Whether you can attend or not, please spread the word to everyone you know who is interested in keeping an independent book store in Ithaca. They need not be owners to attend the meeting.

We hope we will see you on Thursday the 12th.

Sincerely,

The Executive Board of Buffalo Street Books
Rob Vanderlan, President
Leann Kanda, Secretary
Michelle Nolan
Dianne Dietrich
Chris Holmes
Alex Skutt
Eleanor Henderson
Gary Weissbrot
Sharon Yntema

Brian Crandall

Brian Crandall reports on housing and development for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached at bcrandall@ithacavoice.com.