ITHACA, N.Y. — Two years after nearly having to close its doors, Buffalo Street Books has good news to report. In an update this week, store officials report the bookstore “has experienced a steady upward trend in sales and community involvement.”
In 2017, the community-owned Buffalo Street Books nearly closed after revealing it was in the midst of a serious financial crisis. But, with strong community support, fresh ideas and fundraising, the store was able to survive. A year later, in 2018, board president Rob Vanderlan characterized the status of the bookstore as both “hopeful and discouraging.” Though the book store was making smart decisions and sales were growing, they were still losing money overall.
Today, however, General Manager Lisa Swayze says, “I feel like we’ve shifted our momentum to be much more future-focused and much more – what store do we want to be? And how do we want it to feel? And what do we want it to be like?”
Swayze said thanks to some strategic decisions and community support, the books are looking better. “We’ve been in the black most of the year,” she said. That’s a big shift from where the store was two years ago when it had to raise at least $75,000 just to make it through the holidays.
In a public update Wednesday, Buffalo Street Books said there are now 900 owners, up from about 700 two years ago. Swayze said they have been able to make some smart, strategic decisions this year, including cutting the reading room and reducing the footprint of the store by about 1,200 square feet. That change alone saves them $12,000 per year. And that space does not appear to be missed — they have freshened up the interior to make it brighter, added greenery and cozy nooks, and the shelves are well-stocked.
“A lot of energy has gone into the store this year being in a better place,” Swayze said. “It’s a constant balancing act still. It’s very dependent on the community showing us the support and coming in. But, the ways we’re being smart and making better decisions are greatly impacting how well the store’s holding up and surviving in the climate.”
Buffalo Street Books originally opened as the Bookery II in 1981 and was renamed Buffalo Street Books in 2009. In 2011, the community “bought out” the bookstore by raising $250,000 to keep it open and switched the model to a cooperatively owned bookstore.
In addition to making adjustments to the physical space, the bookstore has trimmed and added programs, based on community interest and what makes financial sense. Buffalo Street Books decided to cut the “Off the Hill” program, which sold course books for Cornell University because it was not profitable. But they have added a number of fun programs, including the “Ithaca is Books” initiative with community ambassadors, a subscription book club, “BSB First,” and the Well-Read Black Girl book club, a collaboration with Southside Community Center.
A new website will also be launched soon, which will include an online shopping portal.
• Related: The fight to save Buffalo Street Books
Like is the case for many small businesses, the holidays are a key time for sales. Swayze said about 25-30% of sales are during the holidays. “It’s huge for us,” she said. A good holiday season could put the store ahead for the first time in a long time.
This holiday season, there are a number of programs and initiatives planned at Buffalo Street Books.
Swayze said staff has worked together to craft recommendation lists for the holidays. Local resident Amy Dickinson, who is a nationally syndicated columnist, will also be a part of a program to promote “a book on every bed” — which is a holiday tradition to buy or share a book for your child and leave it wrapped on their bed. After the child unwraps it, it’s a chance for the parent and child to celebrate reading together. There will also be an opportunity during the program to “pay it forward” and buy a book for another child in the community in partnership with the Children’s Reading Connection.
The beauty of being a local, independent bookstore Swayze said is doing these types of programs that support their business and the community at the same time.
“I feel like that’s a big part of what makes this store unique is the way we’re connected to the community in all those ways,” she said.
In the news release, Buffalo Street Books said all of the changes in the past two years have resulted in a “palpable difference in atmosphere.”
“Buffalo Street Books is not just surviving but thriving, thanks to engaged community members who choose to shop local, support Ithaca’s cultural life, and enjoy mingling with other book lovers in this local independent bookstore,” the news release said.
All images by Kelsey O’Connor/The Ithaca Voice