September 29, 2011

Six Months After Nearly Closing, Bookstore Thrives

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Six months after Buffalo Street Books became a community-owned bookstore and began selling ownership shares to stay in business, the store continues to thrive and receive community investments.

“I think people have really taken to the concept of ownership, which was a concern … I have a sense that people who bought shares really think of it as their store in a really concrete way, which is exactly what we were hoping would be the case,” Bob Proehl, community outreach coordinator at Buffalo Street Books, said.

Though the growth of share owners has leveled off since the store reopened, the number of owners has continued to increase from approximately 500 last spring to 630 today.

“It’s slowed down quite a bit, but we’re still selling shares,” Proehl said. “We’re still selling ourselves as a concept to new folks.”

Last May, Buffalo Street Books planned to close its doors due to “financial constraints,” Gary Weisbrott ’71, former owner of the store, announced in February. However, after a massive campaign organized by Proehl  and members of the Ithaca community — including Cornell and Ithaca College professors — came together to save the bookstore.

Proehl said that the new model has made it easier for the bookstore to turn a consistent profit.

“It puts us in a position where we’re not suffering to pay back a lot of investors … and it does change the relationship that we have with our customers,” Proehl said.

Proehl also said that customers who own a share in the bookstore are much more likely to tell their friends to buy at the local bookstore rather than buying books online.

Though some media outlets have reported that independent bookstores worked to fill the void left by Borders Bookstores, Ithaca’s stores say that they have seen no discernible uptick in business.

When Borders first announced it was closing in February, Weisbrott, said Borders’ closing “has very little impact on … other independent bookstores.”

Now, eight months after Borders’ closure, Proehl said that this prediction has largely come true. He said that, alhough business has increased overall, it is difficult to tell whether this is due to the store’s movement from being privately owned to community owned or the closure of Borders.

“We have seen an increase, but it’s difficult to tell whether it’s directly related to that — There’s so much that went on with us changing our status that that time,” he said. “There has been a fair uptick in business; I don’t think it’s something you can necessarily contribute to the closing of Borders.”

Proehl said that, in contrast to Borders, Buffalo Books offers a community feel.

“Borders really defeated itself. If you look at the history of that company, it’s a series of disastrous decisions and … near the heart of that is the decision to standardize itself,” he said. “More and more, they moved to this vanilla corporate model where the corporation was telling them what to sell and people respond that poorly. I think one of the strengths of the independent stores is that we’re unique to the community.”

The owners of Ithaca’s used and rare bookstores also said that they were minimally affected by the closure of Borders.

Joseph Wetmore, the owner of Autumn Leaves Used Books, said that there was no increase in sales that “could be attributed to Borders’ closing.”

Jack Goldman, the owner of the Bookery and the former owner of Buffalo Street Books, agreed with Wetmore.

“The influence of Borders has always been minimal on used and rare bookstores,” he said. “Its absence is not deeply felt, nor was its presence.”

He said he was happy to see Borders go.

“When I owned both stores, [Borders’ presence] was felt and I was not happy to see them come, but we outlasted them, and I was certainly happy about that,” he said. ­

Original Author: David Fischer