When Granada Books opens in downtown Santa Barbara, Calif., next month, it will operate on a hybrid model with a for-profit bookstore and a not-for-profit event series, Pomegranate Arts. “My dream is that the building we’re in will be bought by the nonprofit and the community will take over the bookstore,” said Emmett McDonough, who cofounded the store with Sharon Hoshida. Granada is part of a group of hybrid bookstores springing up around the country, including Kepler’s Books & Magazines in Menlo Park, Calif., and Charis Books & More in Atlanta, that are mixing profit and nonprofit elements to create viable business models at a time when many book sales have migrated online but people still long for physical bookstores that also serve as community centers.
Thirty-nine-year-old Charis is both the oldest feminist bookstore in North America and the first to create a nonprofit events arm: it started Charis Circle in 1996. Arguably that’s the reason the store has been able to escape the fate of so many sister stores that have closed; in the mid-1990s there were 120 feminist bookstores in the U.S., while today there are fewer than a dozen. “People still want to browse, but they don’t want to buy at full price. They are willing to pay for nonprofit programming all day long,” said Charis Circle executive director Elizabeth Anderson. She described the hybrid model as “deeply symbiotic. We feel like we’re two halves of the same body.”
A few years ago the bookstore considered moving and opening the Charis Feminist Center with a cafe. Those plans were scrapped because of the recession. Instead the store is transforming its current building, which it owns, into even more of a community center, which will allow Charis Circle to take on an increasing part of the expenses. Charis will change the way books are displayed and add more events, particularly daytime activities. The store already holds 12 to 20 programs a month, from readings to writing groups, children’s book fairs, and yoga classes. “We firmly believe from the nonprofit side in the value-added of the bookstore. Serendipitous things occur,” said Anderson, adding, “Our heart will always be engaged with books.”
In December 2011 when Kepler’s was close to closing, Praveen Madan and Christin Evans, who already own Booksmith in San Francisco, and a team of volunteers stepped in to rescue it with a community project, Kepler’s 2020. The fundraising campaign raised close to $1 million, and that was before the creation of a nonprofit events arm, Peninsula Arts and Lectures. “People funded the vision of this hybrid mission,” said Madan. “The reason [they] loved Kepler’s so much [was] all its nonprofit work out in the community. It was an intellectual, cultural center. The only way to preserve that was to make that work nonprofit. Kepler’s today is healthier and in much better shape than any time in the last five or six years.” In the long term, Madan would like to take the store’s mission of public education and literacy and turn the whole operation into a nonprofit.
All In: Being Nonprofit
Some bookstores have been wholly nonprofit from the start, like the 33-year-old MIT Press Bookstore in Cambridge, Mass., which is part of the marketing department of the press and acts as a showroom for MIT books. “We’re within five miles of a lot of good bookstores,” said longtime manager John Jenkins. “We make a point to focus on what other bookstores don’t carry.” That means no poetry or fiction. The store’s equivalent of Fifty Shades of Grey was a new edition of Thomas H. Cormen’s Introduction to Algorithms.
“We’re pretty hyperfocused,” added Jenkins, who devotes 50% of the 1,200 sq. ft. bookstore’s shelf space to books published by MIT Press, and the remainder to publishers focused on similar areas (including science, technology, and design). The store doesn’t call attention to its nonprofit status or the fact that it doesn’t charge sales tax on MIT publications. Its deep selection of titles in the subject areas it covers and its “slightly used” inventory from the press draw international visitors, as well as students and faculty from the institute.
Eleven-year-old nonprofit Housing Works Bookstore Cafe in downtown New York City is also deeply dedicated to its mission. With a full-time staff of five and 200 active volunteers, the 3,000 sq. ft. store, which opened in 1997, contributes 30% of the annual operating funds to Housing Works, which helps homeless people with HIV/AIDS. “We’re a nonprofit with a retail arm. The whole goal is to support the mission,” said Nicholas Watson, v-p of the bookstore and food services.
The store’s inventory, which is donated—including books for author events—is about 50% new and 50% used or rare. “Our collection is quirky,” said Watson. “We don’t call up and order 10 copies of something. We need to be more curatorial. We lose when people want just one book. It’s about the experience.” That experience includes a myriad of parties, group readings, music, and soon, possibly, e-books. Watson has been exploring the idea with Kobo in light of the store’s strong following on social media.