Last week, PW published an update on Reimagining Bookstores, a network of booksellers established by Praveen Madan of Kepler’s Books in Menlo Park, Calif., and a corps of like-minded indie leaders in 2021. One of their key goals is helping booksellers rethink what Madan calls “outdated” frameworks for maximizing profits and instead emphasizing bookstores’ social value. Now may be the time to double down on those efforts, because that argument is reaching the ears of investors, philanthropists, and change agents who want to support civic causes.
Despite adding value to their communities, “bookstores have to operate as for-profit in a marketplace that is totally stacked against them,” said Will Ames, the project manager for philanthropy at the Emerson Collective, an LLC founded by Laurene Powell Jobs. “There’s a rising cost of living and rent that is a tremendous existential threat to bookstores,” as well as the often-uncompensated labor it takes to coordinate literary events on-site, record podcasts, or connect young readers with books. “We see a solution, potentially, in opening bookstores up to public support, whether tax-benefited grants or gifts, to allow bookstores to thrive,” Ames added.
He explained that during the pandemic, the Emerson Collective began researching the challenges facing U.S. civic institutions. The organization looked back to the Federal Writers’ Project and other New Deal arts programs that once unified communities, and this “led us in a roundabout way to bookstores.” He and his team recognized bookstores as grounding forces for democratic society, operating as retail spaces and cultural institutions. “They’re economic anchors that redistribute local dollars as well as provide social convening spaces and places to develop relationships and exchange ideas.”
Consequently, the Emerson Collective developed a program to “grow a portfolio of bookstores we support directly through playbooks and resources,” Ames said. By playbooks, he means step-by-step guides to establishing and operating bookstores as hybrids with for-profit and nonprofit elements. Resources include accounting and legal support, education on inventory management, and funding. “We want to be sure our support goes beyond a grant,” he noted, adding that mentorship is an essential component of the program.
The Emerson Collective seeks bookstores and startups in underserved markets in particular, including rural areas, small towns, and book deserts, and bookstores owned by people of underrepresented or historically marginalized identities. It began by supporting a group of 12 stores in 2022, and that number has grown to 20. Ames said he foresees “a steady state of about 30 bookstores in our portfolio,” with a cycle of about three years’ support for each.
“Across our philanthropy team, we focus on capacity-building support,” Ames said, with attention to mission-driven events, literacy-boosting storytimes, and partnerships with community institutions. “As we learn, we want to think about what creates a healthy book ecosystem, the technology behind running a bookstore, and some of the gaps in education. We want to get to the place where someone can start a bookstore without taking on a lot of personal debt and be sustainable.” Ames described Emerson Collective’s aim as “seeding the readers of the future.”
“Emerson Collective’s entry into the sector is a huge development,” Madan said.
Impact investors and a film in development
Twelve other stores are receiving assistance from investor John Valpey, a retired Bank of America executive and founder of the social enterprise fund Return Capital. Valpey, whose background is in tax and estate planning, loves working with mission-driven small businesses. “Basic products and services are a sweet spot for me,” he said. When he met Madan a couple of years ago, he realized how bookstores might benefit from his expertise.
Madan put Valpey in touch with the New England Independent Booksellers Association, and NEIBA acts as a bridge between Valpey and New England regional booksellers wanting to “open a second store, purchase a new store, renegotiate a lease or a loan, hire a new manager, or do succession planning,” Valpey said. “Some require capital, in the form of an equity investment or a flexible low-cost loan, and I’m willing to take some risk to support that passion.”
Yet another investment project looks at bookselling through a documentary lens. VR Ferose, senior v-p and head of SAP Academy for Engineering in Palo Alto, Calif., as well as the founder of the Bangalore-based India Inclusion Foundation for people with disabilities, met filmmaker Doug Roland when he screened Roland’s 2019 film Feeling Through at the Bangalore International Short Film Festival. Ferose, who believes that print books and browsable bookstores must be sustained in a hyperdigital world, wanted to make a film about the challenges facing independent booksellers. He and Roland began planning a documentary.
“As of today I haven’t found a business model for the survival of a bookstore, unless you are extremely wealthy,” Ferose said. “What is a business model for bookstores of the future?” He hopes the documentary gives bibliophiles a behind-the-scenes glimpse of a bookselling industry that is often romanticized in films and the media.
“You’ll find profiles on local bookstores, but it’s surprisingly a space where there aren’t a ton of documentaries,” Roland said. “Reading is such a solo endeavor, so unless you’re someone who frequents events at stores, or are part of a community of book lovers, you might not understand bookselling.” He finds the diverse perspectives of authors, bookstore owners, and publishers eye-opening: “When you’re working on a new project, it definitely changes the way you see the world. Now, when I’m driving around L.A., I’m pulling over and walking into bookstores I’m not familiar with.”
Filming is underway, but the documentary as yet has no title or release date.
Reimagining Bookstores also aims to influence how bookstore startups get underway and how long-established bookstores adapt their structures. “There is a broader shift going on away from hierarchy as the default way of organizing a store to network-based ways of organizing that are more relational,” said Peggy Holman, a co-convener of Reimagining Bookstores and the author of Engaging Emergence: Turning Upheaval into Opportunity.
Those inspired to reimagine their bookstores—including those not quite ready to work with investors, counsel, or documentary filmmakers—might start the process at an interactive session with the Whole School Leadership Institute, which is designing educational content for innovative bookstore management. WSL executive director Kathy Minardi held her first informational online meeting May 19, and booksellers can still sign up for the second meeting, set for May 25.
WSL, informed by the educational research of Harvard’s Robert Kegan, coauthor of An Everyone Culture, designs leadership modules for schools and other organizations worldwide. A conversation between Madan and Minardi about training at Kepler’s led to a more open session for Reimagining Bookstores.
WSL offers “a deep-level organizational development course,” Minardi said. “The main thrust is getting out of hierarchy and moving into a new stage of leadership to fit the times that we’re in, and our content is applicable to growing a community within a bookstore.”
Minardi, whose methods depend on teamwork and consensus, anticipates talking with booksellers about adopting “self-organizing” structures and “a constitution for a healthy workplace.” WSL’s approach is based on research from the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence and social justice organizing principles. “Examples could be, could an employee run a meeting? Can the employees come together for collaborative, mutual decision-making?” Minardi asked. “Everybody has input, and finally you come to the spot where there’s a decision made among the entire group. But you have to learn how to do that.”
Once she hears from attendees at the two information sessions, Minardi will bring observations to her team and begin customizing education for bookstore leadership.
WSL efforts fit in well with Reimagining Bookstores mission to gather the research and the tools necessary to help those considering operating bookstores as nonprofits or co-ops, for-profit main operations with sister nonprofits, or other hybrid structures.