ITHACA, N.Y. — As the local bookstore landscape has dwindled to nearly none, the community has fought to keep the last remaining independent bookstore Buffalo Street Books open.
Around this time last year, more than 100 people crowded the bookstore for an emergency meeting. The message: the bookstore is in crisis.
At the meeting, board president Rob Vanderlan said the bookstore had to raise at least $75,000 before the holidays just to scrape by because of how much they owed to publishers and distributors. The community rallied support, ideas and funds and Buffalo Street Books made it through the season. In the past year, the bookstore’s sales have increased and they’ve had successful events, but they are still struggling.
Today, Vanderlan’s views on the current status of the bookstore are somewhat torn.
“I’m both optimistic and pessimistic at the same time,” he said. “(The situation) it’s hopeful and discouraging.”
Vanderlan said the hopefulness comes from the bookstore making smart decisions over the past year. He said they have a great manager and a great staff and sales have been growing. Their relationship with publishers is also sound so they can order books.
But Vanderlan said the situation is also discouraging because they continue to lose money overall. They invested a lot in inventory and haven’t earned it back in sales yet, he said.
“Though sales grow, we’re not breaking even,” Vanderlan said. “We’re not close to breaking even.”
One program the bookstore was excited to try, called “Off the Hill,” sold course books for Cornell University and Ithaca College, but it was not as successful as they hoped and they ended up about $8,000 in the red from it. And the ramifications are worse than that figure suggests because for the program that had to buy over $50,000 in inventory and stretched their credit with publishers past the breaking point, an email update to owners said this week.
Vanderlan said they have decided to pull the plug on that program.
To help save money, Vanderlan said the store has three main options: close the reading room, control expenses, including payroll, and do consistent fundraising.
They have opted to close the reading room and consolidate, which will ultimately save them about $15,000 per year.
“This has been the reality the store has lived with and probably not faced up to since it became a co-op seven years ago,” Vanderlan said. “For the foreseeable future, if there’s going to be an independent bookstore in Ithaca … it’s going to have to be subsidized. And that subsidy is going to come in the form of owner contributions.”
The bookstore has set up a sustaining owner program which has raised about $10,000 for the year so far. They also hosted a gala over the summer to kick off their Ithaca Is Books campaign. The movement, as they call it on their website, features Ithaca Is Books ambassadors like Ithaca Mayor Svante Myrick and Ithaca College President Shirley Collado, who share the books that have shaped them as “readers, thinkers, and leaders.”
With the movement, Buffalo Street Books aims to ensure the bookstore’s inventory reflects the interests and expertise of the community, builds a connection to books and reading for a broader spectrum of neighbors, and strengthens Ithaca’s identity as a community that values reading and books.
In the past two decades, the number of bookstores has dramatically declined in Ithaca as they had to compete with online retailers and big chain bookstores.
But locally and nationally, independent bookstores are putting up a fight. Citing information from the American Booksellers Association, an article in The Baltimore Sun said though the number of independent bookstores steeply declined between 1995 and 2009, independent bookstores have rebounded. An article in NPR discussing the positive trend said the number of independent bookstores has actually increased nearly 40 percent since 2009.
In Ithaca, whenever Buffalo Street Books has struggled in the past, the community has stepped up to keep it open. The bookstore switched to a cooperative model in 2011 and there are currently more than 800 owners.
Vanderlan said it’s difficult for him to imagine a future where there isn’t an independent bookstore in Ithaca.
“Ithaca’s such a great reading and writing community and there are so many authors and we do so many events with them where they’re able to share their work with friends and family and neighbors in the community. It would just be a devastating loss if that wasn’t possible,” he said.
What an independent bookstore like Buffalo Street Books offers that other sources can’t, Vanderlan said, is the ability support the economy and labor of producing, writing, publishing, printing and distributing books.
“If we want a world in which there are books, we’ve got to actually pay for them,” Vanderlan said. “We’ve got to pay to support the publishers, support the writers. … It’s part of an economy where writers can actually make a living doing what they love and sharing what they love with the rest of us. And a bookstore is a great place to be at the crossroads of that, connecting readers with writers. And that’s what we do.”
Though the financial situation of the store remains desperate, Vanderlan said he is confident the store will remain open because so many people have worked so hard to make it successful.