14 August 08 | Chad W. Post

The other day NPR ran this segment about Wordsmiths in Decatur, Georgia, and the store’s recent decision to ask for donations from customers in order to stay in business.

In its typical middle-of-the-road objective, NPR’s focus is on whether it’s good or bad for people to donate to a for profit business, presenting both “sides” of the issue in a half-ass, intellectually non-stimulating way. Aside from Wordsmiths owner (who has been successful in raising funds from his customers), they also interview an economist who presents the pat, anti-nonprofit viewpoint that if a business can’t break even, it may not deserve support from the public, and then follow up with Mark Sarvas who points out that maybe the rules for donations should be relaxed for literary efforts, since this isn’t exactly a growth, or even financial stable, industry.

It would take weeks of posts to really parse through an issue like this, but because of some activities I’ve been engaged in recently (including a couple I can’t really talk about until later this fall), the publishing/bookselling model and the nonprofit world has been on my mind quite a bit.

First off, to provide a bit of the contextual background that NPR didn’t, there is at least one very successful nonprofit bookstore in the U.S.—Woodland Pattern in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. They became a nonprofit in 1979, and here’s a basic description of their activities:

The center houses a bookstore with over 25,000 small press titles otherwise unavailable in our area. Because we are nonprofit, our inventory decisions aren’t dictated entirely by commercialism. As booksellers and as presenters of art and literature, we want people to know that there is more than what you see at your chain book store, more than you are taught in school, more than what is reviewed in the papers. We hope to act as a catalyst, putting readers together with small press literature. Come browse our selection of poetry, chapbooks, fine print materials, broadsides, and multicultural literature. We think you’ll be impressed!

Our space also includes an art gallery where we present exhibitions, artist talks, readings, experimental films, concerts and writing workshops for adults and children.

A few years ago, Chapters: A Literary Bookstore in Washington, D.C. decided to become an nonprofit as well, in part by making the store part of a larger 501©3 organization called Wordfest that directed an international poetry festival. For a variety of reasons I don’t even fully know, this relationship didn’t work out, and Chapters was eventually forced to close. The remarkable Terri Merz is still looking for a space to reopen, which will hopefully happen soon, since D.C. needs a great indie store, especially since Olsson’s is struggling.

On the horizon is The Great Lakes Literary Art Center at Shaman Drum Bookshop. Karl Pohrt and I talked briefly about this when I interviewed him a couple weeks back. Karl’s a pretty modest guy, so on his behalf I’ll talk about how amazing this is. Rather than sell his store—which is a fixture of Ann Arbor life, and would probably find a buyer pretty quickly—he’s decided to give it to the community. A pdf of the complete GLLAC Development Plan is available online for anyone to peruse.

One of the things that went unmentioned in the NPR piece (in part because it was outside of the scope, and rather than look at Wordsmiths as an example of a expanding business model of the nonprofit bookstore, they went for the “fair and balanced” is-this-a-good-idea? approach) is what makes a nonprofit bookstore a nonprofit.

Almost everyone knows that most book related business don’t make much money. Sure the big media conglomerates (that are much more than just a publisher) have significant profits, but even then, the margin for a publisher or bookstore is incredibly low compared to other enterprises. As a result, people working in the book trade are usually very underpaid. Which is why it’s tricky to get younger generations to stay in the book business. And why B&N and Borders are filled with “clerks” not “booksellers.” (More on that later or in another post.)

As Richard Nash says, independent booksellers and publishers are just two fuck-ups away from bankruptcy.

But that’s not what makes a store/publisher a nonprofit. A tax-exempt 501©3 organization, can be literary, dedicated to the “advancement of education” or to “eliminating prejudice and discrimination.” Reading the actual description, this seems like a sufficiently broad category, and one that would encompass bookstores that are doing something more than just selling books.

For instance, both Woodland Pattern and Shaman Drum are dedicated to cultivating readers, in part by offering free literary activities, workshops, etc. They are engaging with readers and helping foster a better community through literary works and activities. They’re not just clerking books a la the traditional box store or a supermarket. They are interacting with the public in a different, more meaningful way. And these activities—if they are to have any impact—cost money. And, in my opinion, deserve to be supported through tax breaks, state and federal funding, and donations from individuals.

The current business models we have are totally broken. Distribution is handled by a select few, book coverage (at least print style) is decreasing, very few authors can survive on their writing alone, and people are working in the industry out of love and passion, surviving on small salaries.

Which is why the more I think about it, the more this NPR piece irks me. Granted, they might not find the idea of exploring this nonprofit model as interesting as I do, but the focus they went for is such an odd take that it’s almost ridiculous. And I never like it when economists sugges things about society (such as implicitly favoring the business that can make money instead of the business that enhances cultural life) since I tend to disagree almost 100% of the time with their suggestions.

OK, enough ranting for the moment. Tomorrow (or Friday) I do want to write something more about publishers and booksellers and how they interact (or don’t) with readers, which I think is another important aspect of the wider context for this story.

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