Book Shop Crowdfunding in the Time of Rent Spikes

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By Alexandra Garretón

Faced with skyrocketing Valencia Street rents and dwindling sales in the era of Kindle and Amazon, two Mission bookstores have looked to a new source of revenue to pay the rent in the last year: crowdfunding.

It’s been a rough few years trying to catch up,” said Ashton Di Vito from Modern Times Bookstore. The store moved off Valencia in 2011 due to increased rent, and is still operating at a loss at their mural-covered location on 24th Street. “So we’re hoping, with this kind of campaign, to really pay down that debt, and that will solidify our spot here on 24th Street. It would be our first solid step forward.”

Modern Times launched a crowdfunding campaign on indiegogo in late November to raise $60,000 by 11:59 on Friday, January 24th.  With the hours ticking, they’ve raised a little more than $9,000.

You could call it a bookstore bailout. Yet the Mission is still deciding whether the store is too beloved to fail.

Modern Times’ campaign follows the enormously successful campaign of Adobe Books last year. That used bookstore’s landlord on 16th Street announced he was going to raise the rent more than $4,000 a month early last year while he was in lease negotiations with the luxury men’s retailer Jack Spade.

In order to meet the rent he was asking, Adobe Books launched an indiegogo campaign — asking for $60,000 dollars, to negotiate with the landlord or find a new place to develop a reinvented Adobe Books if the negotiations failed. In 30 days,  the store surpassed its goal by more than $1,000.

“We ran, what I believe is, the most successful crowdsourcing campaign in the U.S. for an independent bookstore,” said Adobe Bookshop manager Christopher Rolls. “It wasn’t easy for Adobe to do it. It seemed as though it might not happen for us, but it did — in the eleventh hour so to speak.”

Although the initial hope was to negotiate with their landlord on 16th, the money ended up going toward a new home in the heart of 24th Street, the boulevard of largely mom-and-pop Latino businesses that has attracted fancier establishments in recent years. The rent at the new location is a tad higher than what they paid on 16th, but considerably lower than the proposed raised rent at the old location, Rolls said.

Phil Lesser, a business consultant who represented Jack Spade in their bid to move into Adobe Books’ prior location, said in August that businesses must change with the times. “You’re in the printed word business. It’s a very difficult business, and they’re doing used books on 16th Street. Even Borders books went out of business, right? The used book business is not the same as when I was a kid, so what do you do now with that space today?”

Yet Lesser was all in favor of using crowdfunding to keep Adobe alive. “If somebody is going to give them money for a book or money for being a part of the community, I think it’s wonderful. It’s a vehicle that didn’t exist a couple years ago. [There are] many different ways to make a business run.”

On 24th Street, Adobe Books joined Modern Times Bookstore Collective, another recent Valencia rent exile. For 30 years, the store had carved out a niche in the crowded bookstore ecosystem with a progressive political inventory including sizable feminist, queer and Spanish-language sections. Yet three years ago, the store fell behind on their $6,400 rent on Valencia, and when their lease was up, the landlord hiked even more. They moved into the former building of China Books — a bookstore that had been converted into a gym. (Modern Times’ old Valencia location became the upscale eyewear shop, Fine Arts Optical). The rent in the store’s 24th Street space is less than half the Valencia rate — $2,850.

But it’s been a hard time for bookstores. Everywhere. Even big-guy Borders couldn’t hack it against tablets with eBooks and websites like offering heavy discounts and home delivery. There’s even a book-less library in Texas filled with computers and a 10,000-title digital collection, but no paper tomes.

Borderlands Books on Valencia has prevailed in the crowded Mission marketplace by carving out a specific sci-fi and fantasy niche and plumping up their book sales with a café.

Modern Times is still seeking a successful business strategy. They owe $100,000 in back rent and credit card debt. The store asked for $40,000 from long-term patrons through events and monthly donation options while also launching the indiegogo campaign, reminding viewers what makes Modern Times special to the community. The reaction has been lackluster.

“The indiegogo campaign has been kind of faltering,” acknowledged Di Vito earlier this month.

While Adobe attributes its crowdfunding success to their deep ties in the community — “especially musicians and writers and artists” Rolls says — Modern Times also has that following. The store claims to be one of the first collectively run bookstores in the United States — meaning the workers aren’t employees but co-owners who have an equal vote in decisions.

They opened in the Castro in 1971 and moved onto Valencia in the Mission in 1980. Some patrons have been going to Modern Times since they were children, Di Vito said. “I mean we were in the Mission through the 70s, the 80s and everything.” Recently people who haven’t been in years are stopping by because they heard the store is in trouble — yet the support has been limited.

Admittedly, the narrative of raising money for back rent doesn’t have the urgency of the Adobe Books pitch last year of a “crucial sink or swim moment,” facing impending closure. (The news that Adobe was being pushed out by a luxury men’s retailer backed by a Manhattan corporate behemoth didn’tbreak until a week after the conclusion of the campaign). Given that Modern Times has already moved, the campaign instead seeks relief from ongoing dire straits, and “to really make its location on 24th Street into a home.”

“We’re not in as imminent a kind of crisis as say, Adobe was when they said, ‘If we don’t raise all of the 60 grand there’s no point going forward,” Di Vito said.

The crowdfunding campaign is just one of many ways Modern Times will try to raise the money. “We can do this in a bit more of a step-by-step kind of manner,” Di Vito said.

Adobe Bookshop and Alley Cat Bookstore moving in up the street has also added competition. “We have noticed that sales have kind of dropped a little since they’ve been around,” Di Vito said. Yet on the positive side, 24th is becoming a booklover’s destination. “I think it’s kind of neat that we have a little bookstore row now.”

Rolls from Adobe Books is nervous about Modern Times’ fate. “It’s a lot of debt and it’s a lot of money to raise. We’re offering any help we can to Modern Times while, of course, recognizing that we, too, are not out of thick,” Rolls said, referencing the challenges all bookstores are facing these days.

If Modern Times doesn’t raise its target — as is looking like the case — they won’t shut down immediately.

“We’ll probably try to soldier on for a little bit,” Di Vito says. “But the way things are going — if 24thStreet ends up repeating the pattern on Valencia — if [the rent] starts raising in price dramatically — there’s really not much hope for this store in the Mission.”

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