Over the past 25 years, the Book Industry Charitable Foundation has given out more than $10 million in aid to 10,000 individuals and bricks-and-mortar bookstores and comics shops. “Our core program is to help anyone who works full-time or part-time in a bookstore who is having some type of a financial emergency or personal catastrophe,” says executive director Pam French. “That’s what we do so well.” The majority of Binc’s awards are to store employees, because, she adds, “they’re the ones who are making less or are part-time.” About 10% of those who have received aid have been store owners.
Of those entrepreneurs, a number over the years have been assisted with store expenses after natural disasters like the California wildfires. Others have been provided with funds or critical information to help them navigate the kinds of personal emergencies that any bookstore owner or employee might experience. More recently, many owners received small cash infusions at the onset of the pandemic from #SaveIndieBookstores, administered by Binc. And this spring, Binc administered the funds from the Survive to Thrive initiative, distributing $1.1 million to 115 stores.
The extraordinary events of 2020 showed how Binc can adjust to different crises, though its operating philosophy remains the same: to help booksellers in need.
River Dog Book Co.
BrocheAroe Fabian says her new venture, River Dog Book Company, “would have been over even before it began without Binc’s help.” Fabian and her wife moved to Beaver Dam, Wis., in 2018 from North Carolina, in answer to the town’s call for someone to open a bricks-and-mortar bookstore there to replace its Book World outlet after the mini-chain closed.
Besides running River Dog as a pop-up store in various locations around the city, Fabian worked remotely for an Oregon-based company while her wife finished her doctoral dissertation. Several months after the move, while Fabian was dealing with the logistics of financing a physical location, the company she worked for went out of business, resulting in the couple losing their health insurance.
“I needed time to figure out what to do,” Fabian says, noting that the cost of the insulin her wife needs daily for her type 1 diabetes made the situation even more dire. Within three days of contacting Binc, the foundation covered the store’s next month’s rent and funded Fabian’s COBRA plan for the next two months.
“We were able to keep our health insurance, stay in our apartment, and I could find another job,” Fabian says. Due to Covid, River Dog no longer operates as a pop-up; it’s currently an online-only store while Fabian investigates boutique partnership opportunities with other businesses in the Oconomowoc, Wis., area, where she now lives.
Comics Shop Owner
A comics shop owner in the mid-Atlantic region who requested anonymity explains that while exercising at his gym in 2019, he experienced amnesia. The next day, he was rushed to the hospital for tests, and he remained there for 24 hours. He was subsequently diagnosed with transient global amnesia.
Noting that his health insurance coverage had a “ridiculously high deductible,” the comics store owner recalls that medical bills began arriving at his home “just as Covid shut down everything,” and that they were for “more than they told me the bills would be.” Though his store was closed to in-person traffic, he still had to work there for at least four hours each day—a responsibility made almost impossible due to the “psychic stress” of battling both the hospital and the insurance company regarding “who was supposed to pay and how much.”
It was a “bureaucratic nightmare,” he says, that almost immobilized him and imperiled the store’s existence. “I could not run the business during that time,” he recalls. “Anytime I had to call the hospital or insurance company, I knew it was going to be a bad day.”
After he contacted Binc for help navigating the maze that is the U.S. health-care system, Binc contacted the hospital, negotiated down the bill, and then paid it. “There were still problems with the billing,” he says. “I kept receiving bills, and Binc took care of it. If nothing else, they gave me time as well as money. Binc is at the top of my list. I’m going to pay it back and pay it forward.”
More recently, the comics shop owner has received a Survive to Thrive grant.
Eight Cousins Books
Sara Hines, owner of Eight Cousins Books in Falmouth, Mass., points out that Binc does not just assist booksellers with funds but also provides expertise and resources that can save bookstores thousands of dollars. After a flood in 2018, caused by a problem with a pipe above the store, destroyed approximately 95% of her inventory, Hines says that she wondered what would have happened if a staff member—instead of Hines herself—had opened the store that morning.
“What would they have done?” Hines asks. “Would they have known what to do? What kind of training have we provided them to help them navigate those first few moments in an emergency?”
Hines praises the resources Binc provides detailing procedures bookstores should follow in case of emergencies, such as designating a place outside of the store to meet. “Some of the things Binc suggests for stores we already had in place, and it made a huge difference, so Binc helped us before the emergency,” she says. But she was anxious to learn more, so she reached out after the flood to ask if the organization conducted emergency procedure trainings for bookstore personnel. “At the time they didn’t have what I was looking for,” she recalls, “but they were open to the idea and worked with me.”
Binc created a template that it entitled “1-2-3 in Case of Emergency” for stores that is available—along with other resources—on its website. It advises, among other things, that stores back up all data and maintain copies offsite. Stores can add information specific to themselves to the template. “Having already gone through an emergency, I find it incredibly helpful,” Hines says. “I know everyone’s catching on that Binc is available for financial assistance, but I don’t know if all the other things they can provide is something that is widely known.”
Janet Webster Jones
Janet Webster Jones, owner of Source Booksellers in Detroit, has for years been involved with Binc, “both as a supporter and a volunteer helper.” Since the pandemic erupted 18 months ago, the foundation has helped Source to survive—and expand. In spring 2020, like businesses nationwide, Source experienced a loss of customer traffic that nearly ended its 32-year run. “During that time we were scared,” Jones says. “We were just struggling to figure out how we were going to keep going. In my anxiousness to stay alive, I applied for any grants that came along.”
Jones applied for assistance through a special initiative of Binc’s, helping stores navigate through the crucial early stages of the Covid outbreak. Source received $1,000, which kept Source going until things turned around in the summer of 2020, when, after the police murder of George Floyd, people swarmed Black-owned bookstores for books on race and racism.
With sales spiking throughout that summer, Jones returned $500 to Binc, explaining that, though she was grateful to have received the funds in her time of need, bookstore employees “who have had personal problems” needed the foundation’s assistance more. She did keep half of the money Binc had given to Source, though, “because I didn’t want to deny their goodness.”
Earlier this year, Source applied for a Survive to Thrive grant, “with the idea of a possible expansion,” Jones says. She has long wanted to move into a larger space; the current 800-sq.-ft. space has become increasingly cramped as the store’s online sales have increased.
Jones recently received $10,000. At about the same time, the 700-sq.-ft. space next door became vacant, and she was able to negotiate a lease. “It was perfect timing, because I really didn’t want to have to leave the neighborhood,” she says, adding that the expansion should be complete by early fall.
A Great Good Place for Books
Like Jones, Kathleen Caldwell, the owner of A Great Good Place for Books in Oakland, Calif., did not know how her store would stay afloat after stay-in-place orders were issued in six San Francisco Bay Area counties in March 2020. After applying for relief from Binc, Caldwell received enough to allow the store to survive while it shifted from in-person sales to online and phone sales.
“I cried when I got it,” Caldwell says. “It felt like the right time.” She notes that A Great Good Place was able to reopen for online business about six weeks later.
“When we needed them most, they rose to the occasion,” Caldwell says of Binc. “They’ve changed the landscape of indie bookselling. Not only do we know now that someone is out there, on our side, but they’ve made it okay to need help, to ask for help.”