Ever since Janet Geddis launched one of the first bookstore crowdfunding campaigns in March 2010 to raise money to open Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., Indiegogo and, to a lesser extent, Kickstarter, have become the go-to places for cash-strapped booksellers trying to open a bookstore, add a second location, or move an existing one. And as was the case for Geddis, who raised a little over 15% of her $13,000 goal, many stores have fallen short. But crowdfunding isn’t just about the money.
“It showed the bank that we were determined and had 50 people willing to put down money,” said Geddis. Similarly, Leslie Hawkins, who opened Spellbound Children’s Books in Asheville, N.C., a decade ago and wanted to raise $18,500 last spring to move for the fourth time, was pleased with the $5,400 she received. “It was a great way to reach out to our customer base,” she said.
Even campaigns that have had a particularly slow start, like one for Harris Used Books, which hasn’t received a single pledge in its first two-and-a-half weeks, can have value. If Victor Harris doesn’t receive the money he needs to open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore just outside of Durham, N.C., he says that he’ll push back his plans for a year or two. In the meantime, he is continuing to operate the bookstore as an Amazon storefront. “[Crowdfunding] is still a new phenomena. The rules are not set yet. For me,” said Harris, “the worst case scenario is I get more people to notice my campaign.”
Successful campaigns like one that Changing Hands in Tempe, Ariz., ran over the holidays to raise money for a second store in Phoenix to open in mid-May, are also about community. Its tongue-in-cheek campaign, “Frank ‘N Moby Build a Bookstore,” featuring two literary characters not often conjoined (Frankenstein and Moby-Dick), helped it earn a whopping $91,000, more than $10,000 over its stated goal. The money won’t come close to covering the $800,000 in initial costs, including start-up capital, books, fixtures, and bar equipment. While the bulk of the funding will come from loans, an investment from the bookstore, and from the store’s partners, the Indiegogo campaign, said co-owner Gayle Shanks, “was designed... to allow our customers to help us build the store, which they truly wanted to do. We have over 1,1000 people with a personal investment in our new space.” Plus the store doesn’t have to pay back donors.
Crowdfunding campaigns can take months to plan, and even so, Spellbound’s Hawkins said, she wished she could have done a practice one first to refine the perks. “It was so much work,” added Changing Hands marketing director Brandon Stout. “Sometimes we asked ourselves if we couldn’t have done a bake sale.” In part, that was because the store chose to go all in with fixed funding. If it didn’t hit its goal, it wouldn’t receive a cent. “Once you’ve launched, you’re only just getting started,” added Stout, who described keeping the campaign on track as “a constant flog.” When it was running behind about half way through, he and other staffers sent out emails, tweets, and even stuffed shopping bags in the last two weeks to let people know that the store needed their help.
Michelle Baron, owner of the 28-year-old Book House in Maplewood, Mo., has had plenty of practice. She ran two consecutive Indiegogo campaigns followed by one on Kickstarter after she lost the lease for her pre–Civil War location to a developer, who tore it down. A customer was behind the store’s initial Indiegogo campaign to save the building, which raised just over $5,650 towards a goal of $50,000. Baron managed to turn the idea around so that customers understood that it wasn’t just the building that was in trouble—so was her bookstore and her livelihood. The second Indiegogo campaign, which began three weeks after the first one, netted $2,530 towards a goal of $25,000.
For Baron there is no contest between Indiegogo and Kickstarter. “We reached a lot of new people with Kickstarter,” she said. Athough some indie booksellers object to Kickstarter because it uses Amazon for payments, Baron chose it over Indiegogo because of Kickstarter’s much bigger following. The campaign, which ran from November 8 to December 8, was picked up on Reddit and earned more than Baron had from the two Indiegogo campaigns combined: $12,280.
Baron also tried to get more creative with perks. One for $500, which enables a person or group to sponsor a bookshelf, has been so popular that she continued selling it after the campaign ended. To date, 10 people and groups have sponsored a shelf, including the St. Louis Romance Writer’s Group and local publisher Reedy Press. As with Indiegogo, Baron, said, “It’s not just about getting money. You’re giving something back to the community.” She’s already planning another Kickstarter campaign for the fall.
Graphic designer Safwat Saleem, a 2013 TED Fellow who cowrote the video for Changing Hands with his wife and designed many of the perks, including t-shirts and a calendar, prefers Kickstarter. “It’s not even close the amount of people who see your project,” he said. “For an entire industry to shun a tool so powerful, it’s like shooting themselves in the foot. Eventually, they’ll have to come on board. You should go where the people are.” He estimated that by going with Indiegogo, Changing Hands started out $40,000 in the hole.
Saleem is also an advocate of the all-or-nothing Kickstarter approach, which he regards as more “authentic. If you’re telling people that you need $80,000 to do this, then you need $80,000.” He advised other booksellers who might not have the ability to hire someone to make their video to focus on the ideas. “It’s about working around your budget,” he said. “Production values absolutely help, but the idea matters, too.”
Modern Times Bookstore Collective in San Francisco has raised $20,000 to date through last fall’s Indiegogo campaign and straight donations through its fiscal sponsor, PeaceKey, which loaned it its nonprofit status. Although the bookstore didn’t raise the $60,000 it needed to retire its debt, collective member Ruth Mahaney, who handles accounts payable and is the children’s book buyer, is pleased that the store has been able to pay off some of its highest-interest credit cards.
Now the collective is considering an online auction and taking steps to lower its expenses. “I think the future of bookstores is continuous fundraising,” said Mahaney. “To have a bricks-and-mortar bookstore is important to people. But a lot of people don’t shop there. I’m resigned to some form of [ongoing] fundraising.” Another thing the bookstore has done is to cut costs by using volunteer staff. It also submitted a proposal to area business schools for help with marketing. A team of students is putting together a marketing survey, a first for the bookstore.
To open Avid, Geddis borrowed an idea from five-year-old Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, N.Y.—finding lenders in the community, who are paid back, with interest, over five years. During the life of the loan, those community lenders get a discount on purchases and other perks. Geddis targeted 15 people, and 10 ultimately lent the store money. “They’ve been an integral part of the bookstore,” she said. “There’s something special when one of the lenders comes in.”
Word Up Community Bookshop in Upper Manhattan also wanted to involve the community by creating a Community Supported Bookshop program modeled after the Community Supported Agriculture programs used to support local farmers. “It allows us to expand upon local values within a community,” said store cofounder Veronica Liu. She also likes the idea of giving people something when they sign up for a $20 share, a tote bag and six wooden nickels redeemable for used books. The bookstore is also working with a specially priced school share that enables teachers to receive a wooden nickel for each student in their class. And it holds regular Book Harvests so that CSB members can get a first look at newly received books.