Throngs of science fiction lovers flooded Borderlands bookstore and cafe Thursday night to attend a communal brainstorming session about how to keep it open. They laughed, they cried, and they bounced around ideas for what might save, if not their favorite literary haunt, then maybe some other small businesses struggling to stay afloat in San Francisco.
Owner Alan Beatts, who announced about two weeks ago that he would close the specialty bookshop by the end of March, sat at a podium to guide them through a thought process it seemed he’d already followed many times over.
Most of the ideas to keep the store open (restructure as a nonprofit, combine the cafe and bookstore, start a crowdfunding campaign, petition city hall) were met with patient explanations of why they wouldn’t work in the long run. But at least a few of Beatts’ guests that night weren’t really there to suggest business strategies. They were there to express their gratitude and to mourn a loss, and Beatts was leading the service.
He told stories. He cracked jokes. He took notes. But he also made a statement.
“Let me put to bed this whole it’s Amazon, bookselling-is-not-viable story,” he said. “I am closing because of the minimum wage law. It’s not our rent, it’s not Amazon. It’s not the way San Francisco is changing.”
He compared the bookstore to an ailing man with heart disease who smokes cigarettes and has lung disease and decides to consume a large quantity of methamphetamine. The theoretical man suffers a heart attack and dies. He wasn’t doing great to begin with, Beatts reasoned, but it’s the meth that actually killed him. So it was with Borderlands and the minimum wage increase.
But Beatts was also quick to reassure customers who had voted for the measure and felt guilty for inadvertently putting him out of business.
“It’s not your fault,” he told his spellbound listeners.
Any frustration he expressed was directed at the Board of Supervisors for passing a minimum wage law with no exceptions or allowances for small businesses. He referred to statements made by Supervisor Scott Wiener that indicated the Board of Supervisors had considered the disproportionate impact on small businesses a minimum wage law would have, and then dismissed those concerns.
“Essentially I don’t think the city cares about small businesses. And that pisses me off,” he said.
Beatts didn’t vote for the minimum wage increase in San Francisco, even though he supports a federal minimum wage wholeheartedly. At the local level, he said, minimum wages come with complications for businesses that can’t absorb the cost of a wage increase because of their size, or their nature. Bookstores, for example, can’t arbitrarily raise the prices of their goods, in part because publishers predetermine the prices.
For Borderlands, payroll is the single greatest expense, followed closely by rent. An increase in minimum wage to $15 an hour, which will be the mandated level by 2018, would dig a roughly $25,000 hole in the bookstore’s yearly finances. Thus the hesitation to accept a sudden outpouring of support from the community in the form of financial donations or attempts to expand the customer base. Aside from Beatt’s unwillingness to accept a handout for a for-profit business, support like this tends to peter out after initial enthusiasm fades, only drawing out a long and painful death.
Heather Cornish, a former Borderlands employee, compared the closure to the death of a pet.
“You know your cat’s gonna die, do you keep giving her the steroid injections even though you know she’s gonna die? How painful is that?” Cornish said.
Still, she’s taking action to see what can be done in general for small businesses battling a variety of elements in a political microclimate that favors large, monochromatic technology enterprises.
Cornish has started a Change.org petition to encourage the Board of Supervisors to consider giving small businesses a hand up with tax exemptions and lower business license fees.
“We cannot imagine a future where city planning allows only sterile tech giants and anonymous chain retailers, and where the next City Lights is not allowed to grow,” Cornish wrote in the petition.
She’s also trying to gather a crowd of small business owners to push for changes to city policy that would protect small, unique enterprises without advocating against a living wage.
“A large group would carry a lot of weight,” Cornish said. “I think everybody wants to have both.”
So the crowd got creative, spitballing ideas ranging from the repetitive to the totally crazy – Beatts and his staff have been toying with the idea of loading some books onto a trailer and setting up a sci-fi bookmobile on random street corners on weekends and briefly considered moving the bookstore into the basement, where they would have to excavate two feet of concrete and ash to even allow people downstairs.
The ideas that seemed to give Beatts pause and instruct an employee to make note included: Hybridizing as a sort of bookstore-meets-gallery nonprofit in the style of Adobe books and pursuing arts funding; Offering subscription services to capitalize on the curatorial services the shop is already known for; starting a partnership with tech companies and organizing author talks for employees, at which that author’s books would then be sold; and being absorbed by a larger bookseller to take advantage of niche popularity while also shifting the burden of payroll to a larger entity.
Jonathan Alloy, who made that last suggestion, has a background in business and is a Borderlands reader.
“If the problem is scale, then change the scale,” he said.
It’s too early to tell if any of the lifeline suggestions might save Borderlands, but Beatts said he hadn’t heard anything that immediately changed his mind about closing. For now, the plan is still to close the store by the end of March — but Beatts seemed to be keeping an open mind, as long a the solution involves the personal touch that makes the bookstore unique.
“When it comes down to it,” he told his audience, “I am in this business and I love this business because of you people.”