The plight of local independent bookstores is a sadly familiar story in NYC, and today there's a new one to worry about, as of one of the bigger NYC book businesses says they are in danger of closing soon without serious help from the city.
Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin wrote an open letter to various city officials today beseeching them for help keeping the four Book Culture locations (three are in Manhattan, one is in Long Island City) open. "Our four stores are in danger of closing soon and we need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing. This is true in spite of the fact that business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated," he wrote. "In the last 30 months the payroll costs for Book Culture have risen by 50% and it has been difficult to adapt quickly enough. We have now made the structural changes to our company and the cuts that will allow us to move ahead profitably once we find the financial resources we need."
Book Culture's stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state. We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy, which is why I address our government here. Many large development plans, Amazons HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality.
Every one of our employees, including my family, spends virtually all our income in the city. We shop here, eat here, pay our rent, use the MTA, and all those expenses roll right back into the community economy, to the benefit of all of us. It’s the multiplier effect of storefront businesses. It isn’t a huge sum of our economy taken by itself, but it is integral to the fabric of our city. The jobs we create aren’t tech jobs but our jobs offer a toehold to young people coming to New York, often times trained in the humanities and heading for careers in the arts or other cultural industries; to students, artists, dancers and writers. We have been employing young natives forever too, often as a first job. Publishing and bookselling have long been a significant part of New York City’s cultural and economic foundation.
You can read the full letter here. He also put a video up, which you can watch below:
Doeblin explained to Gothamist what he believes the business needs to survive, and his larger ambitions to try to help other small businesses stay alive in an ever-changing city: "I think we need at least $500K in a term loan but I hope to find $750K to a $1M," he said. "I would like the city to immediately [guarantee] such a loan and then embark on a serious plan to improve the odds of small business in New York. I would like to be on that panel too, because there is a lack of creative optimistic thinking and action."
Doeblin blamed payroll cost increases on the city's minimum wage raise, which he says increased hourly wages for his employees "from $10 to $15.25 since December 2016" and forced him to initiate layoffs and reorganizing. (Book Culture also had a battle with employees over low pay during a unionization effort in 2014.) But he surprisingly doesn't blame his business struggle on rising rents: "Our landlords have been helpful in opening, developing and considering rent that can work."
Doeblin couldn't say exactly how long the stores may have left before needing to shutter, but he described it as "a kind of awful spiral. It becomes harder to find any vendors that will ship to us, unpaid debts to vendors and creditors will eventually be foreclosed. An old saying is 'slowly at first and then all at once.'" Because of the amount of money he thinks they need, he also doesn't want to start a Kickstarter or anything like that—he's more interested in appealing to city officials to pay more attention to the role and importance of smaller businesses in the NYC ecosystem.
"We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate," Doeblin wrote. "We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation."
Earlier this year, Westsider Books on the UWS was able to stay open after a crowdsourcing campaign. The Strand was given landmark status to the disappointment of its owner. And McNally Jackson announced it would stay at its longtime Prince Street location (and open two more).
On Monday afternoon, Manhattan Borough President Gale A. Brewer issued a statement in support of Book Culture, saying, ""Independent stores like Book Culture should get more support from the government. My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve.”