A science fiction, mystery and horror bookstore that has weathered some 19 years on Valencia Street is thriving under a sponsorship model its supporters concocted last year – and while its owner is not recklessly optimistic, there is a possibility that the store may acquire a building for a permanent home in San Francisco.
A year has passed since science-fiction fans packed the cafe adjacent to Borderlands Books, anxious to brainstorm ways to save the store. Alan Beatts, the owner, had announced that a minimum wage increase would shutter the store and café by the end of March 2015.
Back then, Beatts compared the store to an ailing smoker who dies from an overdose of methamphetamines: Things weren’t going great in the first place, but it is undoubtedly the meth that kills him. At the time, a recently voter-approved minimum wage hike (to $15 by 2018) might not have felled a brawnier business, but it was a deadly blow for a bookseller with a compact staff that nonetheless accounted for its biggest expense.
But the blow was deflected and the store rescued by an outpouring of support from avid readers who paid $100 each to sponsor the store. Beatts needed 300 members. More than 800 came forward. February 2015 – the month that would have been Borderlands’ last month of business – turned out to be its best and the store sold more books than ever before.
“February 2015 was like…wow,” Beatts told his members at a recent sponsor meeting. But it wasn’t the sales that impressed him.
“I didn’t sell you something. You stepped up to keep us here,” he told sponsors.
That enthusiasm is still alive. Some 611 sponsors have renewed and at the meeting, many showed support for doubling their membership costs if necessary to find the store a permanent home. Several indicated they would donate hundreds if not thousands toward a down payment on a building, if it came to that.
But in exploring the myriad possibilities for fundraising that members would support, Beatts was less keen on having tiered memberships or special perks, finding those ideas less egalitarian and also “too market-y.”
“If there aren’t 300 members every year, it’s time for us to pack it in,” he said.
Members, too, liked the nature of the current sponsorship program, and admitted that it takes a certain kind of business to merit the kind of support Borderlands has elicited.
“It’s a good way to maintain something that’s culturally…valid and useful against the vicissitudes and the fickleness of capitalism,” said Borderlands sponsor James Beach. While he could see himself supporting other local businesses in the same way, it would have to be a “similarly unique and valuable service.”
That means more than stocking genre books.
“Borderlands took pains to foster community prior to that meeting, and community members came up with the idea” said Caroline Ratajski. When the sponsorship idea was established, “I couldn’t find my checkbook fast enough.”
Kathryn Bernard hadn’t encountered a system exactly like Borderlands’ before, especially for a brick and mortar store.
“I like it, but I have no idea if it would work for anybody else or how it will work in the future,” she said. She likes “being included in behind-the-scenes things.” One of the benefits of a membership is getting reserved seats to presentations and author talks, and maybe even more intimate access to authors, such as at dinners or other get-togethers.
Sunil Patel found himself in the same situation when the time came to support the bookstore financially. He noted the willingness of bookstore employees to return that support – whether through the occasional opportunity for the currently unemployed writer to print something, or the eagerness of the staff to provide flashlight assistance during a blackout.
“Who gets emotionally attached to a bookstore?” Patel marveled. It turns out, hundreds had.
Beatts anticipated that outpouring last year but worried a one-time influx of crisis cash wasn’t a sustainable way to run a business. As it turns out, the support did taper, but not nearly as much as expected. In other words, sci-fi literature fans have voted with their dollars, and in doing so, saved a small business – possibly for the foreseeable future.
Beatts told those assembled for this year’s meeting that the business, far from closing, has actually accumulated a surplus of some $85,000. But with five years remaining on the bookstore lease and 10 on the café space lease, Beatts sees the next threat approaching.
“Unless something really astonishing and perhaps almost biblical happens in San Francisco, we will not be able to pay rent in San Francisco,” he said.
So he quizzed his supporters about what they would like to do. An overwhelming majority supported fundraising for a building purchase. A $300,000 down payment for a building, at this point, does not seem out of reach, and Beatts has already been looking at buildings around the city that might be suitable for a bookstore – perhaps in the form of a foundation dedicated to running a sci-fi, mystery, fantasy and horror bookshop in San Francisco in perpetuity.
“One of the nice things about talking to sci-fi readers is we have no problem thinking 50 to 100 years into the future,” Beatts mused. “If we pull this off, I’ll be able to say what my life’s work was. Running Borderlands is the best thing I’ve ever done with my life.”
Correction: A previous version of this article stated that Borderlands had accrued savings of $200,000. This is a projection five years into the future assuming current sponsorship levels, not the current figure, which is $85,000.