When Alan Beatts announced in early 2015 that he would close his science fiction, mystery, and horror bookstore Borderlands, his customers did something extraordinary: They refused to let it happen.
At a meeting that packed the Borderlands Cafe next door to the bookstore, they mourned the loss – and then made suggestions ranging from the tame to the bizarre to save it.
They didn’t want to lose this bookstore and the community it harbored. Instead they suggested, and immediately offered up the money for, a sponsorship program that would make up for the widening gap between revenue and costs of running the business.
Emboldened by that experience, Beatts has decided to pursue another idea that seems slightly mad. He’s buying a building, and to finance it, he had 21 days to raise $1.9 million in loans from bookstore customers.
He’s now eight days and $500,000 in – with another $300,000 pending.
“The only reason I have the nerve to do something like asking people to lend me $1.9 million – a dude who runs a bookstore – is the way that the sponsorship program worked out.” he said. “I have no idea if this is going to work out, but it beats figuring we’ll be out of business in 2025, so I might as well take a stab at it.”
Back in 2016, Beatts floated the idea of buying a building to secure a permanent future for the bookstore.
“Unless something really astonishing and perhaps almost biblical happens in San Francisco, we will not be able to pay rent in San Francisco,” he told sponsors at the time.
More recently, the idea became more concrete. He found a building.
It is at 1373 Haight Street. Lenders weren’t terribly interested in loaning Beatts and his bookstore more than a million dollars, so he’s turned to readers.
Already, some have stepped up with loan offers of $100,000 and more.
Daunting as it may seem for a small business to crowdfund a real estate purchase in 21 days, this is by no means a do-or-die affair. If the deadline isn’t met, the purchase will fall through, but Beatts still has about three years left on the bookstore lease on Valencia Street and eight years on the cafe.
“It’s either buy [a building] or shoehorn the bookstore into the cafe space,” he said.
But the possibilities opened up by property ownership are inarguably tantalizing – not as a moneymaking scheme, but to bookworms of all stripes who simply want to see the medium of “ink on dead trees” as Beatts puts it, continue to be available in San Francisco. And the sponsorship numbers – some 900 the first year, around 630 last year, and 692 this year – are one indicator of how much customers value the place, not just for its wares.
“I’m doing all of this because I want to run my bookstore,” Beatts said. “In bookselling, just like in writing, winning consists of being able to keep doing it, and not having to go do something else,” he said.
In the short term, if the deal is sealed, Borderlands could also run out its lease on Valencia while renting the commercial space on Haight Street to someone testing their business model who is looking for a short term lease.
Either way, the cafe next to the bookstore – a self-sufficient business – will remain open, since its lease doesn’t expire until 2025.
In all, the prospect of buying a building was sweet enough to prompt a bookseller with 20 years of business under his belt, 16 of them on Valencia Street, to leave the Mission for Haight Street.
The shifting nature of Valencia Street has not escaped him.
“I think it’s in trouble,” Beatts said. “Valencia used to be a really nice mix of neighborhood serving businesses.”
Still, it’s not easy to leave the Mission.
“It’s been wonderful to be here, and I hope we do get to move to Haight and it gets to be wonderful there too,” Beatts said.