Like all other non-essential businesses in California, San Francisco's City Lights Booksellers & Publishers has been closed for weeks. With the lack of cash flow, the company turned to GoFundMe last week and asked for $300,000 from supporters. After four days, the total raised on the site reached $467,000. “I have a lot of thank you notes to write,” said Elaine Katzenberger, publisher and CEO, noting that the vast majority of the 9,700 donations were $100 or less, with only a handful topping $1,000. The funds raised will be used to support both the bookstore and the publishing business.
The San Francisco literary institution dates back to 1953, when it was founded by poet Lawrence Ferlinghetti; it is now one of the most iconic bookstores in the country. It is also in one of the most expensive markets to operate in the U.S., said Katzenberger, who noted that while City Lights owns its own building, which houses both the bookstore and the publishing house, the cost of doing business is higher than most, particularly when it comes to finding a way to pay a living wage to the company’s 20 employees who work in the bookstore and at the publishing house.
“While the amount of money raised on the GoFundMe is a beautiful thing — and I and everyone involved with the store are very, very grateful for it— it is by no means enough,” admitted Katzenberger. “I feel like the message out there is that this ‘will save the store,’ but the honest truth is that what it will buy us some time and the opportunity to form a strategic plan for the future that may, if it works, ultimately save the store. The support we have been given, needs that plan.”
Katzenberger said establishing a succession plan for the company is becoming more and more urgent. “Lawrence is 101, Paul [Yamazaki, the store’s venerable buyer] is 70, and I’m turning 60 this year,” she said.
One of the things Katzenberger would like to do is tap into some of the business expertise that surrounds the bookstore and is present in the local literary community. “I really admire what some of the people here represent — the ethical capitalism that they espouse — and would like to tap into some of that expertise,” Katzenberger told PW. “I want to be able to get into a conversation about what bookselling is going to look like in a world where the words ‘browsing’ and ‘community’ may mean something a lot more risky.
In the meantime, she has done what many other business owners in the country have been forced to do: talk to the banks, file for SBA loans and the Paycheck Protection Program, and hope for the best. “Right now, we are waiting,” she said. In the meantime, she’s been able to distract herself by reading a pre-pub copy of Elena Ferrante’s The Lying Life of Adults (forthcoming from Europa Editions) and every few days she drives into town, stops by the post office to collect mail, and looks in on the store, just to make sure it is still there.
“So far, it still is,” she said.