March 6, 2011

Ithacans Successfully Rally To Save Buffalo Street Books

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Correction appended.

Local residents, community leaders, and Cornell and Ithaca College professors have banded together to save Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca’s last independent store for new books, the store’s owner Gary Weissbrot ’71 announced on Friday.

As part of a community buyout, 997 shares were bought — raising close to $250,000 — by approximately 500 member-owners to keep the bookstore open as a community-owned cooperative. The collective funds surpassed the original fundraising goal that Bob Proehl, the outreach coordinator for Buffalo Street Books, set in a statement about the buyout on Buffalo Books’ website by $50,000.

Facing financial constraints, the bookstore announced on Feb. 10 that it planned to close by the end of March.

The store’s management expects to finish the current liquidation sale and close March 13. After a three- to four-week interim period, the store will open again in April under the cooperative ownership of five hundred member-owners, Proehl said.

“Right now we’re really getting into nuts and bolts stuff, and hopefully we’ll have a more definite and workable model by the end of the week,”

Proehl said. “It’s coming together very quickly. There’s a lot of work that still has to be done, but we’re off to a really good start.”Proehl said that the atmosphere at the store had improved over the past week.“Not only are people excited that the store is going to survive, they’re excited about the way in which it’s going to survive and that they’re going to be a part of keeping it alive,” he said.Proehl acknowledged that book sales are still a “dicey business,” but he said the bookstore’s new business model would alter its relationship with the community. “We have 500 more people who [say that] when a friend of theirs mentions they’re going to Barnes and Noble to buy a book, they’ll say, ‘No, you should buy this at the local bookstore,’” Proehl said.Weissbrot said it was an “amazing testament to this town” that the bookstore would remain open. “Ithaca has basically said, ‘The market has spoken, but we don’t have to listen to that. We can speak for ourselves  … We want a bookstore, and we are going to support it,’” Weissbrot, the store’s owner, said.Cornell professors rejoiced at the news.Prof. J. Robert Lennon, English, is both a writer and a member of the community buyout.“We love the bookstore. My wife used to work there, and it’s the last fully-functioning independent bookstore in Ithaca,” Lennon said. “Whenever one of my wife’s or my books comes out, we go for a reading there, and I know something I like is always going to be there.”Lennon called pledging to the bookstore — contributing a certain amount of money if it reopened — a “friendly and intimate thing.” Lennon said that he and his wife did not think the community buyout would reach its goal, “so we were shocked and delighted that we’re actually going to have to write checks.”“I feel as though the level of enthusiasm is so enormous that they have enough impetus to figure it out and make something work,” Lennon said.  Prof. Aaron Sachs, history, also pledged toward the buyout.Sachs said that a bookstore served as both a symbol of the community and a place for community growth.   “We just did not want the market to be able to determine whether we should have a bookstore in Ithaca,” Sachs said. “I think it’s incredibly important to have a bookstore that’s engaged in new publication.” During the three weeks before Buffalo Street Books reopens, Proehl said he will put  the finishing touches on the store’s new legal structure and gather the membership together to vote on creating an executive board, rehiring staff and ordering books. Weissbrot said that in the past, he has taken out additional loans to cover the store’s financial shortfalls. He said that a benefit of the cooperative model was that any responsibility for shortfalls would now be spread out between 500 owner-members.In terms of the future of the bookstore, Proehl said he envisioned a store “synonymous with literary arts in the community [that] fosters a general culture of literacy.”Proehl acknowledged that there may be some “backsliding” on pledges, but he remained confident. “We’re well beyond a number that we can confidently go for,” he said.  “Once it looked like a winning effort a lot more people were willing to pledge. On Friday, there was a surge of pledges.” A wide range of people living in Ithaca pledged money to save the bookstore, according to Proehl.“Both campuses are really well represented. The local arts community is very well represented, as well as the local author community,” Proehl said. “It’s been very heartening to see how many different people are willing to participate.”

Correction: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that 997 people pledged shares in the new cooperative ownership of Buffalo Street Books. In fact, 997 shares were bought. Additionally, the earlier version of this story incorrectly stated that the store was facing bankruptcy prior to its announced closure. In fact, the store was only facing financial constraints.

Original Author: Emily Coon