While many bricks-and-mortar bookstores are seeing up sales, Food For Thought Books Collective in Amherst, Mass. is not one of them. Earlier this week the 37-year-old not-for-profit sent out an SOS to customers: “We are fearful that we will not make it to 38, or even through the summer.” According to the newest collective member, Lani Blechman, who came on in April after volunteering at the bookstore for the past five years, the situation really is that dire. “We’re in the middle of juggling minor cash flow crises,” she says, adding, “I’m terribly hopeful that as a community we can come together to sustain the store.”
Many of the bookstore’s woes mirror those of college stores. Food for Thought had relied on textbook sales for classes at area colleges—including Amherst College, Hampshire College, and UMass Amherst—to sustain it and was slow to change course when sales of new textbooks dropped 40% in 2010. It was only when spring 2013 textbook sales put the store in the red, that it got more serious about exploring other options. At the same time, Food for Thought has also experienced what Blechman calls “a changing bookstore culture.” She blames Amazon for creating an I-want-this-right-now culture, where they order something wherever they are. “It changes how often people come into the store,” she says.
For many years, Food for Thought relied on volunteer help. Three years ago it formalized the requirements and created the Valiant Volunteer Brigade. Now volunteers sign up for three-month stints and agree to work at least two or three hour shifts twice a month. Some put in even more time like the volunteer who organized a three-day Pioneer Valley Zine Fest in late April. Now the store is leaning on volunteers even more. In April, Food for Thought moved its three collective members from full-time to part-time, which caused long-time member Mitch Gaslin, who had been with the store for close to 27 years, to leave. Blechman joined to take over many of his responsibilities in membership and bookkeeping.
In addition to cutting salaries, Food for Thought has begun changing its inventory. To test nonbook items, it invited 10 local artisans and groups to create pop-up stores within the bookstore in May. “We learned a lot from it,” says Blechman: $40 terrariums don’t work, but honey, soap and other items under $20 or $30 do, especially body oil from Co-op One-Oh-One. The latter stayed on as has a soapmaker. The bookstore is experimenting with other ways to add inventory with higher margins. It’s putting in more remainders and rolling out a used book section. Since the e-newsletter asking for help went out, Blechman says that more people have donated used books.
Food for Thought is working to bring in an infusion of cash in other ways. Where previously it asked groups that used its space if they could ask for donations, the bookstore is now being more assertive about getting paid. It set up a sliding fee scale intended to help other not-for-profits and nonprofits contribute to the running of the store. It also added a donation page to its Web site and has begun encouraging customers to buy gift cards and renew their membership or take out a new one.
Despite these efforts, Food for Thought still has to overcome the loss of a major influx of people and money timed to the beginning of the fall and spring semesters. With its renewed energy and sense of purpose, along with customer support, it just might be the bookstore that could.