Why indie bookstores are seeking subscribers to stay alive.
It’s tough for many indie bookstores to make ends meet, competing as they are with the likes of Amazon and Barnes & Noble. But one bookstore, on the verge of closing, has made a last-ditch effort to save itself—and it appears they may succeed. How? The New Yorker reports:
[On Thursday], the Borderlands staff made its own announcement—in the form of a blog post on the store’s Web site. … “Starting immediately we will be offering paid sponsorships of the store,” the staff wrote. Each sponsorship—Beatts and his staff opted for that name in lieu of “membership”—would cost a hundred dollars annually and would include a number of perks that wouldn’t cost anything for Borderlands: the ability to rent, at cost, the Borderlands café; invitations to exclusive events; access to preview sales of rare and collectible books; and so on. … Within a couple of hours after the blog post went up Thursday evening, more than sixty memberships had been sold; when I spoke to Beatts on Saturday morning, he reported that the figure had passed two hundred and thirty, and seemed on track to clear the goal of three hundred.
In a sense, the model merely restores the notion of a store “patron” to something closer to the word’s original meaning. But it appears to be a relatively unusual approach for a retail store—essentially putting a price tag on Borderlands’s continued existence, and the cultural and social benefits that come with it, rather than tying memberships to some monetary benefit like book discounts. It could prove instructive, though, to other cultural and social enterprises that have enthusiastic fan bases but whose business models are facing rising costs or other pressures.
It’s an interesting idea, in part because this idea of patronage has usually been associated with different “high culture” endeavors: usually a “patron of the arts” will support a local theatre, ballet troupe, or symphony orchestra—but not a bookstore. What this new plan seems to illustrate is that indie bookstores are now treated similarly to those “high culture” interests—as a distinctive pastime that ought to be enjoyed and kept alive, but also as a niche interest that a larger populace may not appreciate.
There’s been a steady decline in America’s patron class, one that now puts arts funding in jeopardy throughout the nation. Bookstore “patron” systems could suffer from similar dilemmas, though on a smaller scale, if they adopt this model: what happens when the life circumstances of their subscribers change?
Featured columnist Gracy Olmstead is a senior writer for The American Conservative, a senior contributor for The Federalist, and the Thursday editor of BRIGHT, a weekly newsletter for women. Her writings can also be found at The Week, Christianity Today, Acculturated, The University Bookman, and Catholic Rural Life.