When sales dropped by $175,000 in 1998, the 12-year-old Gaia Bookstore, located in Berkeley, Calif., announced it would close in February 1999. Miraculously, it received a reprieve from a customer who, on Christmas Eve, offered the store a $200,000 matching grant to stay in business.

In-store fundraiser held by Gaia owner, Patrica Lynn (pictured below) on January 31 that netted $25,000 in sales and donations.

"We announced on December 20 that we would close Gaia on Valentine's Day -- and open a new, partially nonprofit cultural center in downtown Berkeley in the summer or fall of 2000," said co-owner Patrice Wynn. "The announcement, however, caused a hailstorm of sentiment." Customers and media responded immediately. Explained Wynn, "A bookstore like Gaia functions outside the normal mechanics of a bookstore -- it offers soul, representing fundamental goodness, well-being and human aspirations to the people of the community."

Sales in January immediately jumped by 40%. And thanks to the grant from the anonymous donor, there is no longer a set closing date. Instead, Gaia is embarking on a wide-ranging fund-raising effort. The owners' approach to raising money is based on a series of three "wisdom circles" that they conducted in the fall in order to find out why sales were plummeting (37% in November alone) and what they could do about it. Led by Cindy Spring, author of the book Wisdom Circles: A Guide to Self-Discovery and Community Building in Small Groups (Hyperion), the focus groups were attended by about 50 people each. Topics discussed included how the book-buying habits of the population are changing; how an alternative bookstore such as Gaia -- one that emphasizes spirituality, body-mind practices and gay/lesbian literature -- caters to the needs of its community; and how further funding could be developed.

Gaia owner, Patrica Wynn (l.), pictured with author Iyanla Vanzant.

"We thought people would say that the main reason sales were declining was because of Amazon.com and the chains," Wynn said. "But instead, they said it was more a function of changing social patterns. People are not as interested in buying new books when there are so many secondhand ones and when they have so many old books at home. This is, after all, the era of reuse and recycle."

"Even more telling," Wynn noted, "they said that new books in our specialty didn't have much substance. There was no meat on the bone. In the early '90s, it was fresh material. Now it's being regurgitated. It's selling through the chains but leaving our sophisticated market, which already practices many of the principles, unserved."

Wynn and her partner (and husband), Eric Joost, then convened an emergency session of financial experts in December to see if there was any way to get funding for their type of store. "After all, we had been in a healthy state of growth for five years," observed Wynn. "In '97, we ended the year up 8% -- which was when we started the idea of establishing the downtown cultural center in 10,000 square feet [three times the size of the existing Gaia]. But then, in '98, we saw a decline in sales, beginning with El Niño, and then just continuing through the year."

The financial experts were not encouraging, saying that independent bookstores were being challenged and suggesting that they focus on the nonprofit cultural center instead.

"Our choice," said Wynn, "was to slash wages, staff, benefits and inventory, move the office into our home and increase our own time and commitment. We might have been able to save the business, but we'd pay for it with our sanity, and we didn't feel we could make that sacrifice." Their decision: to close.The announcement not only created a community uproar, it drew a large amount of media attention. "All the local TV stations, NPR, the Los Angeles Times, phone calls, interviews, visits-last week we had TV cameras in the store every single day," Wynn told PW. The reportage was decidedly pro-independents and supportive of the store's role in the community and the neighborhood. She continued, "I think it was zeitgeist: the need for a media story that followed You've Got Mail and the Internet commerce spree that took place over the holidays."

Meanwhile, Gaia must still downsize. Administrative operations are being scaled down and some of the employees, including the special-events coordinator, will work out of their homes; as attrition winnows the staff, slots will not be filled. Most important, Joost will temporarily leave the company to pursue other business opportunities -- and, being an architect, will design the space in the new downtown facility. At the same time, Gaia is rejiggering its product mix, developing a Web site and, in March, will launch an off-site seminar series that will give a taste of the programming it plans to do in the new cultural center.

Wynn is reserved but hopeful that they can collect a total of $400,000 by the end of February. In 1995, when Barnes &Noble moved into the area and sales plummeted, a customer-sponsored fund drive raised $45,000 in three months. "It revealed the behind-the-scenes business reality to the community," Wynn observed. "And I think many customers were anxious to help because none of us likes the shock of seeing a favorite store shut its doors and realizing too late that there's nothing you can do about it." Survival, she added, depends on educating the public that it is partially responsible for keeping independent bookstores alive. "I don't believe any longer, in these days of the corporations, that hardworking people of modest means can maintain a bookstore."

Drawing on pointers from the wisdom circles, the owners are appealing to the public to view Gaia as a neighborhood resource, an educational center, a spiritual meeting place -- and to make a financial commitment to it, much as one would a church, food co-op or health club. The fund-raising letter calls on Gaia customers to "endow Gaia for the education that the events series provides," "tithe the spirit of place," "take out a 'cultural insurance policy,' " "be a venture capitalist with a social return on the investment" and "become a pillar for Gaia's future." In fact, the pillar is to be taken literally -- in the new facility, one of the columns holding up the roof will be inscribed with all the donors' names. Gaia held a fundraiser on January 31 that netted $25,000 in sales and donations. They have scheduled a town hall meeting and a dance-a-thon with auction for the coming weeks.

The $400,000 will carry the bookstore through the next year and a half and into the opening of the cultural center, without any burden of debt. The partially nonprofit cultural center , part employee-owned and part community-owned (shares will be sold to the public) will include a cafe (which the owners of Gaia plan to license out), a concert space and workshop facilities that will be rented out to the community. The bookshop will be proportionately smaller, and the product mix, which already generates 40% of sales from music, crafts and sidelines, will see a 10% increase in the music department. "There's no music store at all in the downtown Berkeley area," explained Wynn, who hopes the enhanced music section will prove a real profit center. Talks are also in the works with several local cultural organizations with an eye to striking an alliance to share space in the new center.

"It's all good news," said Wynn, an ABA board member who expected to tell her colleagues-meeting in San Francisco this week-that she would be closing her doors, rather than keeping them open thanks to a guardian angel. "We feel so lucky," she told PW. "It gives us renewed faith that people are willing to pay for something of value."