Growing numbers of indie bookstores in the U.S. are turning to GoFundMe to raise funds to pay expenses like payroll, rent, and utilities to stay afloat in the absence of customers this spring. But some bookstoress are having problems actually accessing those funds.
High-profile booksellers seeking recourse have flocked to the platform, including City Lights Books in San Francisco, probably the most famous indie bookstore in the country. Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and CEO of City Lights Booksellers & Publishers, launched a GoFundMe campaign on Thursday to raise $300,000 for the iconic institution, which was founded by Lawrence Ferlinghetti in 1953. Its headline was blunt: "Keep City Lights Alive." By Monday morning, the campaign had raised more than $450,000, a seemingly rousing success celebrated immediately online by the literary world—just as it previously heralded Ann Arbor's Literati Bookstore's success in raising $100,000 in just 48 hours through the platform.
Yet a number of the stores that were among the first to launch successful campaigns in the wake of the novel coronavirus pandemic are complaining that, to date, GoFundMe has not released the funds promised them. While some of the bookstores PW contacted declined to go on the record, others are going public, hoping that the logjam around the platform's disbursements will be cleared and that they will receive the funds they desperately need. (City Lights could not be reached for comment by press time.)
I Am Books in Boston’s North End neighborhood was the first indie bookstore to launch a GoFundMe campaign in response to the novel coronavirus pandemic. Citing his Italian background and disclosing that he’d heard reports from Italian friends and relatives of the devastation in that country due to the coronavirus, owner Nicola Orichuia closed I Am to customers on March 12. On that same day, Orichuia launched a GoFundMe campaign to raise, initially, $5,000. He later increased that amount to $10,000, and to date he has raised $10,195 via the platform. He said he has yet to see a dime of that money.
On Friday afternoon, Orichuia wrote in response to PW’s query: “I've reached out to customer service several times, chatted twice with customer service representatives, and submitted all the documentation they requested twice and followed all their instructions, and I still can't seem to get it to work.”
Orichuia sounded more hopeful of a resolution on Monday morning, emailing PW that he had submitted the documentation GoFundMe requires for the third time, and that "it now appears to be working," although he subsequently received yet another "error message." But, he added, "it still is showing my first withdrawal should go through on April 17, so hopefully it will work now. The whole process is a bit cumbersome for businesses like ours to get the withdrawals set up. At the same time, GoFundMe has seen quite the uptick in fundraisers, so I guess their customer service reps must be slammed."
Seminary Co-op/57th Street Books in Chicago launched its campaign on March 27 to raise $250,000. To date, it has raised $150,000—none of which has been released, as of this morning. Like Orichuia, Seminary Co-op director Jeff Deutsch contacted GoFundMe customer service several times, most recently this morning, but still has not received any of the funds raised. Deutsch told PW that he has been assured when he contacts the platform that “it’s just going to take a bit of time.” But, he added in an email, “it has been two weeks since we posted the campaign, which seems like long enough.”
In contrast, Nina Barrett of Bookends and Beginnings in Evanston, Ill., who launched a campaign on the same weekend as Deutsch did, reports that she has received “most of the money from the campaign” raised to date, i.e., $25,000 of her $100,000 goal.
“We got it in seven business days,” she said, adding that it was not a streamlined process, due to the platform's "really wonky" messaging system to campaign organizers regarding disbursements. GoFundMe, she explained, sent her, and other organizers, a series of automated messages "that don't appear to have anything to do with your actual situation—including one scary-sounding message they sent me that they were putting a freeze on our funds.” GFM “made it sound like maybe someone else had tried to withdraw them, but when I replied to that message to say it didn't make any sense and I was concerned, I got a very friendly message back saying that no, no one else had tried to access the funds and they were lifting the hold.” The funds appeared in her account on April 6.
GoFundMe's press relations department has not responded to PW's query.
An earlier version of this story misidentified Nicola Orichuia's gender and has been corrected.