ITHACA, N.Y. — The community is not ready to give up on Buffalo Street Books yet.

An emergency meeting at the bookstore drew more than 100 people Thursday evening. Owners, board members and community members filled the chairs, crammed in the back and sat wherever space was left on the floor to hear the stark message from Buffalo Street Books board president Rob Vanderlan.

The passion to keep Ithaca’s independent and cooperatively owned bookstore open is clear, but if they don’t raise enough money quickly and find a sustainable path forward, the store will close.

“The reason this bookstore has survived since 2011 is because of the contributions that you’ve all made,” Vanderlan said. “If the bookstore is to survive in the future, it’s going to because the ownership both in this room and elsewhere. We did not take the decision to call this meeting lightly.”

The room was quiet as Vanderlan laid out the situation, discussing history, their present situation and what is needed to move forward.

Buffalo Street Books board president Rob Vanderlan presents the financial situation of the bookstore to owners. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Buffalo Street Books board president Rob Vanderlan presents the financial situation of the bookstore to owners. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Twenty years ago, Vanderlan said, there were 25 bookstores in Ithaca and 3,300 independent bookstores nationwide, but large chain booksellers like Barnes & Noble and Borders, with the addition of Amazon hurt small booksellers. Today, there are about 1,775 independent bookstores across the country and one in Tompkins County. By 2006, Vanderlan said Buffalo Street Books was breaking even. By 2011, the bookstore could not continue under the model it had and that is when the store turned to a cooperative model.

The community raised more than $250,000 to keep the store open, and now the store has more than 700 owners.

“It worked. The store is still here six years later,” Vanderlan said.

Since 2011, Buffalo Street Books has sold $4 million in books, but it has not enough to keep the store afloat. Vanderlan said the store loses about $50,000 per year. He said they have tried to cut costs where they can, but it has not been enough.

Though people who attended the emergency meeting were optimistic and full of ideas that they scribbled on post-it notes and stuck to an “Ideas” poster, that optimism must translate into action, funding and a sustainable plan to proceed for the bookstore to remain open.

As it stands now, the bookstore needs to raise at least $75,000 before the holidays to “scrape by,” Vanderlan said. It owes so much to distributors and publishers that it can no longer purchase books — and it shows in the lighter shelves. The bookstore owes about $100,000 to distributors and publishers. If they are able to raise up to $125,000, they will be able to pay off debts to publishers and distributors and have a more successful holiday season.

“Without money, we can’t continue,” Vanderlan said.

At least 120 people attended the emergency meeting at Buffalo Street Books. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
At least 120 people attended the emergency meeting at Buffalo Street Books. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

Though shopping online or in big chains for books may be convenient, community members say a lot is lost.

Ithaca resident and poet Katharyn Howd Machan, professor of writing at Ithaca College and the first poet laureate of Tompkins County, said independent bookstores like Buffalo Street Books are important for local authors. The carry books from small presses and host local readings, she said.

“Chains don’t care about local poets. They don’t care much about poetry in general,” Machan said. “Buffalo Street Books always supports local writers with small presses.”

Buffalo Street Books closing would be a “shrinking of spirit for our community.”

Another important component to local bookstores is the collection of books curated with the community in mind, Ithaca resident and board member Alex Skutt said. Skutt is the publisher of McBooks Press, an independent publishing company in Ithaca that publishes a lot of historical fiction, particularly naval adventures.

“What I’ve always loved about independent bookstores, and why I think they’re so important, is that in an independent bookstore, you have the experience of a curated collection of books — some either individual or small group of individuals deciding what books they think are good, what books interest them, what books they think would interest people in the community,” Skutt said.

Owners wrote down ideas to keep the bookstore going. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice
Owners wrote down ideas to keep the bookstore going. Kelsey O’Connor/Ithaca Voice

To move forward, Vanderlan said Buffalo Street Books need to find ways to cut costs.

One way to do that is to reduce the size of the store. Some people have suggested the bookstore open a cafe or restaurant along with the bookstore, but Vanderlan said they have looked into it and it is not possible in that space.

Vanderlan also asked if owners would be willing to donate their time to help the bookstore. There was a resounding “Yes” in the room.

Many people, including board members, said they were more hopeful after the meeting. A check for $6,000 was even anonymously donated.

Vanderlan said the best case scenario is to create a plan and stay open.

“If this works, we stay open. That’s a huge victory. We pay the publishers. We pay the wholesalers, then we pay the publishers. That allows us to buy holiday stock, sell books through the holiday, …the tailspin we’re in right now, pull out of that and keep us open and functioning. That puts us in a position to implement the plans that we’re going to develop with all of your help and support and input in 2018, and hopefully allows us a sustainable path forward where we can grow sales and raise funds,” Vanderlan said.

The worst case: Buffalo Street Books would will have to close the store and liquidate.

The board of directors will meet Monday to discuss ideas that were suggested and see if they can move forward.

Have an idea or want to contribute? Contact Buffalo Street Books at info@buffalostreetbooks.com or 607-273-8246.

Kelsey O'Connor

Kelsey O'Connor is the managing editor for the Ithaca Voice. Questions? Story tips? Contact her at koconnor@ithacavoice.com and follow her on Twitter @bykelseyoconnor.