Struggling bookshops turn to online fundraisers to keep lights on and the pages turning
Here in the age of e-books and Amazon.com, most small, independent booksellers are thriving.
Most, but not all.
In the cozy confines of Once Upon A Crime in Minneapolis, thousands of volumes of murder, mayhem and mystery crowd the shelves and creep up the walls. The shop has survived three decades, a change of ownership and millions of whodunits. But it’s struggling to stay in business in the middle of Uptown construction gridlock that snarls traffic and chews up parking spaces.
“It’s not great. We have days when only one or two people come through the door,” said bookstore manager Devin Abraham, who spends as many as six days a week working in a shop stocked with every hard-boiled detective tale and cozy mystery story you’ve ever heard of, and thousands more you haven’t.
Book clubs meet at the shop. Authors come here from across the country for readings. But for small business, small setbacks — like the headaches from an ongoing, yearslong highway construction, or a new bike lane that gobbles up parking spaces in a part of town where parking is already scarce — can create huge problems.
The parking issue won’t kill Once Upon A Crime. Not if the readers can help it.
Hundreds are trying to help — flooding a new GoFundMe page — www.gofundme.com/keep-once-upon-a-crime-books-open — with almost $20,000 in donations, money the bookstore can use to update its website, offer new amenities or even search for a new location with ample parking and more square footage.
If the store moves, the readers will follow. Books might be cheaper on Amazon, but clicking a button is never going to be as satisfying as winding your way through a neighborhood shop crowded with so many books that even the owners have lost count. A space where you can browse and explore and stagger down the aisles balancing a stack of every Sue Grafton mystery from A to Y.
“The story has changed and the tide has turned,” said Carrie Obry, executive director of the Midwest Independent Booksellers Association. The association, which had a banner 2018, works with about 100 independent bookstores in Minnesota alone, including newcomers like The Willow Bookstore, which just opened its doors in Perham. Membership has been going “up and up and up” for years now, Obry said.
Which makes it uniquely painful to see a community treasure like Once Upon a Crime struggling.
A neighborhood bookstore creates a vital “third place,” she said — a space apart from home and work where people can meet and build a sense of community. Amazon might be able to sell the books cheaper, but millions of book lovers are willing to pay more to get more.
“Every purchase really makes a huge difference” for independent booksellers, Obry said. Their customers “shop at bookstores because they want to pay the ‘book tax’ — they want that bookstore to be there.”
Once Upon A Crime isn’t the only Minnesota bookstore that is fundraising to keep the lights on and the pages turning. For decades, scholars and theologians searching for rare and vintage volumes knew their books could probably be found in Stillwater, Minn.
Loome Theological Booksellers is a gem of shop, where readers wander the book-stacked catacombs in the basement, Gregorian chants fill the air, there’s a discount on your purchase if you can guess the age of the ancient tome sitting on a pedestal, and where it’s easier to find the bathrooms if you know your Latin (hint: seek out the necessarium). It’s a space that draws in book clubs and author readings and solitary browsers, drifting from volume to volume for hours.
Owner Chris Hagen bought the store a decade ago from its founder, the late theology professor and book antiquarian Thomas Loome, and it’s been a labor of love. But it’s a labor that hasn’t been paying the bills lately for the Hagen family and their seven children.
“It has to pay for my large family,” said Hagen. He and his wife have seven surviving children, including a young daughter who arrived prematurely last year. “I only got a fourth of my pay in November.”
In June, Hagen launched a GoFundMe campaign — www.gofundme.com/protect-our-independent-bookstore — to try and offset the cost of moving the shop to its new location on Main Street in downtown Stillwater. Although the fundraiser is still well short of its $120,000 goal, almost $30,000 in donations rolled in.
“I have been blown away by the contributions people have made,” Hagen said. “Ninety percent of the people who are contributing are people I’ve never met. It’s very satisfying and mystifying at the same time.”
Even with the help of those contributions, he posted last week that Loome had run out of money to keep making its debt payments. He plans to see how the business fares this month, and then have a hard talk with his wife about the bookstore’s future.
The situation right now, he said, “is as dire as it can get.”
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