A team of five people at a small nonprofit in Ann Arbor, Mich., may be all that ensures that next month’s rent and food gets on the table for many of America’s booksellers. As bookstores are forced to furlough or fire many of their frontline booksellers in the face of new coronavirus–related restrictions, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation (Binc) has emerged as one of the few reliable sources of financial support, raising more than $700,000 to support them since early March.
It is an impressive start for the nonprofit, whose mission is to support booksellers and bookstores facing substantial financial hardship. That said, according to Binc executive director Pamela French, more—perhaps much more—will be needed.
“We are absolutely committed to playing the biggest role we can possibly play to keep these booksellers in their homes and with their families, and for them to have bookstores and jobs to go back to,” said French. She estimates that a thousand booksellers will need at least $1,000 in the initial stages of the outbreak response.
Binc has rapidly responded to those anticipated needs, transitioning to a simplified online application form for booksellers and relaxing criteria so that support is also available for booksellers who have lost their jobs due to coronavirus and now face additional financial hardship. By March 23, more than 240 applications had been submitted.
Housing security is the most pressing need, Binc director of development Kathy Bartson said. “People are most concerned about April rent. We want to give them that sense of security that that’s one thing they don’t have to worry about.”
Medical costs are also a significant factor. One bookseller received support last year when her doctor required a 50% down payment for an operation to treat potentially terminal cancer, despite the fact that the bookseller had health insurance. That need is only more pressing now. “If you’re reading about it in the news, we’re seeing booksellers facing it,” Bartson said.
Founded in 1996 by booksellers at Border Group, Inc., Binc has responded to crises ranging from 9/11 to the 2018 California wildfires, which impacted hundreds of booksellers. As Binc’s capacity has grown, so has the need for its services. Prior to the coronavirus outbreak, applications for aid were up 50% in 2020 and 49% in 2019.
That growth in bookseller need put French and her team in the position to respond swiftly to the impact of the coronavirus. “We’re using our experience that we have in these situations and scaling it. That’s one of the things that we have been able to do well and do rapidly,” French said. In a short period, Binc has secured a $100,000 donation from the American Booksellers Association, $50,000 from HarperCollins, and matching donations from both Beacon Press and literary agent Steven Malk.
Along with large contributions, French emphasized the positive impact that individual donations are having on booksellers, with hundreds coming in over the last ten days. For the Binc staff, those days start early and end late, but French said they are energized by the outpouring of support and driven by the knowledge that more will be needed.
“We know it’s been an ongoing challenge for families to know how to make ends meet. We’re humbled that folks are turning to us for our experience and credibility,” she said. “We’re small and mighty, and we’re staying strong.”