One year ago, Barb Wieser, one of the five worker-owners of Amazon Bookstore Cooperative in Minneapolis, told the Minnesota Women's Press that if the 33-year-old feminist bookstore had another year as bad as the past year, "we couldn't stay open."
Things looked pretty grim for one of the oldest women's bookstore in North America. A 15% drop in sales after September 11 had left the store worker-owners with a $50,000 loss; Curly B's, the coffee shop inside the bookstore, closed; and an unexpected $9,000 property tax bill threatened to shut the bookstore's doors for good.
Drastic and creative measures were needed, and the store's co-owners acted quickly. First, they sent e-mails and letters to customers alerting them to the store's predicament and requesting monetary donations just to stay open. Store owners then decided to host a fund-raising party, complete with food and a DJ spinning dance tunes, to pay the property tax bill. On the last Saturday in July 2002, the bookstore held a Property Tax Ball and Silent Auction at the Old Arizona studio near downtown Minneapolis. More than 250 people danced the night away in support of Amazon Bookstore. The event raised $5,000, while another $25,000 poured in from the Twin Cities area and beyond in response to the store's desperate appeal for immediate financial assistance.
"It was incredible," recalled co-owner Kathy Sharp. "Many, many individuals from all over the region sent us money, mostly small amounts in the $25 range, though there were some large donations. I can't tell you how many people came into the store or wrote us, telling us how much the store meant to them, as they pitched in to help us. This was grassroots organizing at its best." The $30,000 in donations covered the property tax, with money to spare to pay off business loans and vendors.
What a Difference a Year Makes
Today, shelves are filled with everything from Down There Press's cutting-edge lesbian erotica to outdoor adventure tales from Seal Press and the latest Book Sense 76 bestsellers. Books and toys for children of all ages fill one corner of the store. A tidy magazine rack lines the front wall of windows. Bookshelves lining the back wall overflow with used books. Music, jewelry, boxes of note cards, videos and other sidelines round out the store's inventory. The store hums with activity as a small but steady stream of traffic—men, women and children—come to browse and buy. And Rocking Robin, the new coffee shop inside Amazon Bookstore, was open for business.
Although Amazon's co-owners emphasize that the store still struggles to keep its doors open in this faltering economy, they add that, due to their successful fund-raising efforts last summer, the store turned a small profit at the end of this fiscal year in April. Even more important than finishing the fiscal year in the black, declared Wieser, "There's been a turnaround psychologically. The community thought that, after the Amazon.com settlement three years ago, the store was safe, that it was financially healthy. When we went public that we were about to go under, people responded. The community cared, and that has made such a big difference to all of us here. It's given us energy. I am more hopeful than before that we will remain open."
Although the co-op was hit with a $10,000 property tax bill this year, the bookstore's Second Annual Property Tax Ball and Silent Auction, held last month, netted $4,200 for the store. (The bookstore did not send out a fund-raising letter to patrons this year, as it did last summer.) According to Wieser and Sharp, the store intends to hold fund-raisers twice a year from now on—in summer and winter. "We need to pay our property taxes, and Minnesotans need to get out and dance, especially in the dead of winter," said Wieser.
There's good reason for the overwhelming community support for the bookstore. While Amazon Bookstore did not legally become a cooperative until 1997, it has always operated as a collective of both owners and volunteers working together to promote feminist literature. For more than 30 years, Amazon Bookstore has been the nucleus of a large and thriving women's community in the Twin Cities. Sharp, a co-owner for the past 13 years, noted with pride the continuity of the bookstore's customer base. She reports that women who frequented the bookstore as college students a decade ago are still visiting. "It's so wonderful for store staff to see both our new neighbors as well as longtime customers coming into the store, a lot of them bringing their families in with them," Sharp said. "There's such a sense of community here, a feeling that we are part of this neighborhood, as well as part of a larger community."
Amazon Bookstore was founded by two Minneapolis women in 1970, at the height of the Civil Rights and women's movements. Women authors were writing books, feminist publishers were producing them and feminist bookstores were opening up across North America to make feminist literature available to readers. Wieser noted that a woman-owned feminist distribution company even existed in the '70s. "We started out small," Sharp said, "on someone's front porch on Cedar Avenue." Five years later, the bookstore had outgrown the table on the front porch it called home. Amazon Bookstore moved to its first storefront location, in the uptown neighborhood. In 1985, the store expanded and moved to Loring Park, on the edge of the city's downtown district.
At first, the Loring Park site suited Amazon Bookstore well. Sales were strong and the vibrant neighborhood, with its park, pond and bike paths, was becoming popular with those seeking a verdant oasis in the midst of the city's bustle. Popular restaurants and trendy art galleries opened on the same block. But the more hip the neighborhood became, the more difficulties store owners encountered. Parking near the store became impossible. Sales dropped.
The emergence and sudden surge in popularity of Amazon.com in 1995 brought a new round of problems for Amazon Bookstore. Customers flooded the bookstore's phone lines, thinking they were speaking to Amazon.com representatives. Patrons ordered books from Amazon.com, thinking they were supporting the feminist bookseller. Vendors called to offer deep discounts, then lowered the discounts when they discovered they were not dealing with Amazon.com. Sales plummeted.
Finally, the five Amazon Bookstore worker-owners had had enough. In a 1999 lawsuit, characterized by many in the bookselling industry as a David vs. Goliath battle between the bricks-and-mortar feminist bookstore and the Internet bookseller, Amazon Bookstore sued Amazon.com for trademark infringement. After a particularly rancorous discovery process, in which Amazon.com lawyers tried to muddy the water by asking inappropriate questions about the sexual orientations of store's personnel, the Minnesota bookstore and the Internet bookseller reached an out-of-court settlement in the spring of 2000 with undisclosed financial terms. Those terms included the provision that Amazon Bookstore was to refer to itself as Amazon Bookstore Cooperative, to distinguish it from Amazon.com.
"People thought we made a ton of money with the settlement," Sharp told PW. "But we didn't. We had to settle. The lawyers' fees were killing us. We could not run a business and deal with the lawsuit at the same time. So we settled."
The settlement money did serve a purpose, however: three months after the settlement, the bookstore moved once again, to its current location. Today, Amazon Bookstore is housed in a large, bright, airy space next to Chrysalis, a nonprofit women's resource center and the building's owner. Now on a tree-lined street in inner-city Minneapolis, the store boasts plenty of parking. The residents of the racially mixed residential neighborhood welcomed Amazon Books, and the first year in its new location, sales soared. "Life was good," said Sharp.
After 9/11, sales spiraled to their lowest levels in years. As other independent bookstores shut their doors, Amazon Bookstore struggled to stay afloat. Since 9/11, the bookstore has actively focused on new ways to expand its customer base and to generate needed income. To bring more people into the store, Amazon Bookstore Cooperative expanded its inventory by participating more actively in the Book Sense program and carrying Book Sense bestsellers by both male and female authors. The store also increased the number of author events to three times per month, hosting big-name authors such as Sarah Paretsky and Gloria Steinem as well as local writers like Lydia Morehouse and Kirsten Dierking. The bookstore has even hosted musicians signing CDs and giving impromptu concerts in the store.
Amazon Bookstore now sponsors "Amazon Friday Nights," a twice-a-month evening of music, poetry and readings organized and run by a store volunteer, something that Sharp calls a "controlled open mike." Audiences average more than 30 people on event night. "What's really great about Amazon Friday Nights is that, because its coordinator is African-American, it brings a lot of African-American performers into the store," Wieser said. "There just aren't that many venues for African-American women artists out there. We've had everyone from well-known local authors and musicians performing here to emerging artists, reading or singing in public for the first time."
To specifically generate income, the store has focused on off-site sales. For the past two years, the bookstore's banner has been a familiar sight at shows, conferences and conventions in the Twin Cities area. The store sells books everywhere that Twin Cities book lovers might gather, from the annual fall Twin Cities Literary Festival to various academic conferences and Gay Pride celebrations, with representation at approximately 25 such events each year. The store even sells textbooks to University of Minnesota students each fall, renting a space near the university campus during the first two weeks of the semester. Supportive professors give the store course reading lists, so students can purchase their books from Amazon Bookstore Cooperative instead of the university's bookstore.
"Sales on our Web site are steady, but small," said Sharp. "But off-site sales have been much, much more effective in reaching more people, bringing in new customers who might never have heard of, much less entered, the store otherwise."
Since last year's strong show of support during Amazon Bookstore's property tax bill crisis, the store's owner-workers are focusing on preserving their loyal customer base in unusual ways. Promotions now stress that the store is not just a place that sells books but is a center for the Twin Cities' progressive community. For instance, instead of discounting Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, as most other independent booksellers did to increase pre-pub orders, Amazon Bookstore advertised that customers would pay full retail price, but the store would donate 20% of all pre-pub orders to national and local peace organizations. "Patrons knew the money was going toward something that they all care about and is at the forefront of everyone's minds," Wieser said. The store donated more than $600 to peace organizations this summer.
Over the past 15 years, the number of independent women's bookstores in North America has dwindled from 175 to 45. Sharp acknowledges that it is a daily struggle to operate an independent bookstore, and especially a women's bookstore, in today's volatile economy. Independent bookstores can only survive in such a competitive marketplace, Sharp believes, by maintaining a stable customer base, and they must redefine themselves as necessary to add to that base. "We do have to change with the times to compete," Sharp declared. "But our basis will always be that we are—first and foremost—a feminist bookstore."