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Should We Sponsor Bookstores?

It’s tough for many indie bookstores to make ends meet, competing as they are with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But one bookstore, on the verge of closing, has made a last-ditch effort to save itself—and it appears they may succeed. How? The New Yorker reports

[On Thursday], the Borderlands staff made its own announcement—in the form of a blog post on the store’s Web site. … “Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store,” the staff wrote. Each sponsorship—Beatts and his staff opted for that name in lieu of “membership”—would cost a hundred dollars annually and would include a number of perks that wouldn’t cost anything for Borderlands: the ability to rent, at cost, the Borderlands café; invitations to exclusive events; access to preview sales of rare and collectible books; and so on. … Within a couple of hours after the blog post went up Thursday evening, more than sixty memberships had been sold; when I spoke to Beatts on Saturday morning, he reported that the figure had passed two hundred and thirty, and seemed on track to clear the goal of three hundred.

In a sense, the model merely restores the notion of a store “patron” to something closer to the word’s original meaning. But it appears to be a relatively unusual approach for a retail store—essentially putting a price tag on Borderlands’s continued existence, and the cultural and social benefits that come with it, rather than tying memberships to some monetary benefit like book discounts. It could prove instructive, though, to other cultural and social enterprises that have enthusiastic fan bases but whose business models are facing rising costs or other pressures.

It’s an interesting idea, in part because this idea of patronage has usually been associated with different “high culture” endeavors: usually a “patron of the arts” will support a local theatre, ballet troupe, or symphony orchestra—but not a bookstore. What this new plan seems to illustrate is that indie bookstores are now treated similarly to those “high culture” interests—as a distinctive pastime that ought to be enjoyed and kept alive, but also as a niche interest that a larger populace may not appreciate.

There’s been a steady decline in America’s patron class, one that now puts arts funding in jeopardy throughout the nation. Bookstore “patron” systems could suffer from similar dilemmas, though on a smaller scale, if they adopt this model: what happens when the life circumstances of their subscribers change? How do they continue to attract newer, younger subscribers? Will this method detract or impede them from pursuing their real purpose: selling books? Perhaps local bookstore patrons could be an exception to the rule, but it seems a bit dangerous for bookstores to switch to a support model that is faltering throughout the nation.

It could be that, if a patronage system offers enough different and attractive perks, the store could continue to bring in subscriptions. The list provided by Beatts’ Borderlands Books doesn’t seem particularly appealing, at first glance: you would have to truly love the store, its model, and its ownership in order to sign up for a subscription. But perhaps subscriptions could involve special book discounts, coupons to an attached/nearby cafe, a free book at the beginning of each month, access to a special “reading room,” author meetings, or book club activities. It is difficult to tell how many potential subscribers would be interested in these opportunities, but local bibliophiles should show their support.

However, it still seems a better method would be to emulate Portland’sPowell’s, Paris’s iconic Shakespeare and Company (pictured above), or any of these thriving independent bookstores. The key is to show buyers why they want to shop here, instead of elsewhere, and to continue to stock books that are rare, distinctive, and attractive. Most people continue to frequent bookstores because they offer somethingenticing yet different: something that’s worth sacrificing convenience and efficiency in order to obtain. A subscription could help cultivate this sort of appeal, but—once again—it would have to be a pretty attractive subscription. And, by itself, such a sponsorship system can’t save the bookstore. It’s by 1) cultivating a unique yet pleasant ethos, and by 2) selling unique and appealing books, that bookstore owners can continue to attract a variety of patrons—patrons who actually buy books.

about the author

Gracy Olmstead is a writer and journalist located outside Washington, D.C. In addition to The American Conservative, she has written for The Washington Times, the Idaho Press Tribune, The Federalist, and Acculturated. Follow Gracy on Twitter @GracyOlmstead.

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