Book Shop Crowdfunding in the Time of Rent Spikes

Modern Times Bookstore Collective on 24th Street.

Modern Times Bookstore Collective on 24th Street.

En Español.

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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 Amazon.com 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’t break 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 24th Street 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.”

14 Comments

  1. John

    The odd business can maybe buy some time from what is essentially just a tech-enabled form of begging.

    But clearly not every small business, nor even every book store, can pull this off.

    In the end, if the business model isn’t sound and viable, we’re debating when it will close down and not whether.

    That said, I’d rather see charity being employed than taxpayer-funded welfare.

    • Sarah

      This is not just about a business model this a about an important part of the community. Borders is a business model and there is no comparison. Modern Times is an amazing bookstore that has given much to the community over the years with its amazing book selection while also providing a gather place for people of common interest. I hope they are able to stay on 24th street. It would beca loss for all of us if they had to close up shop

      • John

        Sarah, if you are suggesting that some businesses are so worthy and noble that they should be subsidized, then there is already a model for that. The city runs a number of businesses at a loss, like Muni, because of the presumed public interest and value in having them.

        We might need transit but we do not need a particular book store. So there should not be any question here of public money being used. If they want to beg and people like you are willing to subsidize their business, then I see no problem with that. It’s your money.

        My point was more to question how sustainable that is, and to show how only a very small minority of non-viable businesses can be saved in this way. It’s an anecdote and not a trend.

        • two beers

          Look who’s complaining about taxpayer-funded welfare.

          The only reason you aren’t scrounging for cans is because of the most massive taxpayer-funded welfare program of all time that is QE2.(and other Fed vehicles, as well).

          Without the Fed’s trillions of dollars in Wall St debt, MBS, and bond purchases, the Dow Jones would be around 8,000, and you would be SOL.Without the Fed bailing your rear out, you are out of business.

          The people you despise most, your renters, put cash in your pocket up front, and subsidize your internet leisure with their taxes and Fed-induced reduced income on the back end.

          We used to have an economy based on production, and while the 1% fared well, so did the workers enjoyed some oif the gains of productivity.

          We now have an economy based on extraction (ie, rent-seeking), which is inherently non-productive, in which virtually all gains in productivity are transferred to , self-congratulatory sociopaths who not only think they’ve earned the wealth they’ve stolen but despise those who actually created the wealth they stole.

          http://useconomy.about.com/od/glossary/g/Quantitative-Easing.htm
          http://elsa.berkeley.edu/%7Esaez/saez-UStopincomes-2012.pdf

        • We might not need transit????? Didn’t you just lobby for a world class subway system in another comment today?

          Soon we won’t need people, everything will be done by machines for the ultra wealthy.

          • John

            We need a way of getting around. How it gets funded and whether it should be public or private is a different matter.

    • C. Russo

      More Robot Romneyhead economics from Mr. Sunshine.

      Modern Times was a sustainable business until an unreasonable rent hike threatened it. (Independent bookstores, by the way, started showing an increase in revenue two years ago, after the closing of the big chains.)

      • mission resident

        If they owe $100,000 in back rent, they already had an issue before the rent was raised. Now with higher rent, they will have more of a problem. Borderline made a business decision and is thriving. Books alone won’t pay the rent. These stores need to figure out another way to make money so they can stay open. Charity can only get them so far. The spicket will run out eventually….

        • John

          Yes, it’s one thing to beg to meet current expenses or future expansion or investment.

          It’s quite another thing to beg to cover stale debts that any business with half a brain would have planned for.

          The fact that they are begging shows that they cannot get credit, and they cannot get credit because their numbers probably look dire.

          Seems to me this kind of venture would work better as a co-operative.

          • landline

            It already is a co-operative. Why did you inject an irrelevant topic, public financing, into the discussion in your earlier comment?

          • John

            Public financing would be the alternative to private financing and i made it quite clear that I would not support that.

            If it is a co-operative already (the article did not make that claim) then surely they should be funding it themselves. Or giving equity to those who do fund it.

      • John

        LOL, Russo, so the business is viable if only their situation was completely different from what it actually is?

        And if my cat was a dog, it would bark.

  2. 24-24

    “too big to fail”

  3. Mission Resident

    I love books, bookstores, leftist politics and worker owned co-ops. And yet, Modern Times never really felt like a place for me. I tried. I really did. I walked into that bookstore twelve years ago thinking MT and I might become very good friends. I bought books there. I went to meetings and readings there. Many visits and a few years later? I gave up on that friendship. Probably the biggest reason is that it felt like a very cold, unfriendly place. On the best of visits, I felt ignored by the workers. On others, maybe actively disliked??

    And although I love that they care about politics, I always thought that their stock was a little too narrowly focused. A lot of political books are outdated quickly. The ones that have some staying power are frequently classics that a lot of politically-minded people already own. I believe that truly successful bookstores have to be places to get lost in. Places of wonder, surprise and comfort. Adobe Books (at least in their old location; I haven’t yet been to the new one yet) had perfected that vibe. As has Dog Eared Books, which is still surviving on Valencia. City Lights has it. And, I’m not a Sci-Fan fan, but I’m betting that Borderlands’ carefully curated shop fits that bill for their fans as well.

    Nonetheless, I hope Modern Times finds a way to stick around. If only because I’m chronically nostalgic and my condition will worsen if another Mission institution like Modern Times shuts down. If they do stay, I hope they study the recipe of other successful bookstores. Bookstore fans don’t just want a place to buy books. We want a place that inspires. A place that comforts. A place that is magical and, simultaneously, just like home. If I can’t curl up in a chair in your shop for hours, I don’t want to be a part of your revolution.

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