In the last six months, three independent bookstores have received particularly large outpourings of support from their customers. One More Page Books in Arlington, Va., ran a high-profile silent auction; 12,000 people added their names to a petition supporting the Strand Book Store in Manhattan; and Book Culture, also in New York City, raised $200,000. Yet booksellers at all three stores say they were pushed to ask for help after becoming victims of state and local policies that put their businesses at risk.
Real estate is booming in Arlington, but the county government’s new methods of raising revenue have brought Eileen McGervey’s store to the brink. Occupancy costs, which were 4% of overhead a few years ago, are now 17%. Part of that increase came in June, when One More Page’s real estate taxes unexpectedly increased by 30%. When McGervey asked the county for an explanation about the tax increase, its board of assessors sent a letter explaining that properties like hers would now be taxed based on the property owner’s net income rather than the tenant’s.
“I would like to see small businesses and large businesses treated more equitably,” McGervey said, but she feels discouraged by her interactions with local leaders amid their simultaneous courtship of Amazon, which is slated to open its second headquarters nearby. “I feel like they still do not understand the impact [of policy changes] on small business,” she said, “or worse, they do not care.”
In New York City, one letter set off a battle that left the Strand’s ownership with similar feelings. Last July, the New York City Landmarks Preservation Commission informed co-owner Nancy Bass Wyden that the store’s building was going to be designated a historic landmark.
Bass Wyden’s father, Fred, purchased the building in 1996 to ensure the store’s survival, but bookstore communications director Leigh Altshuler said the letter prompted concerns about adding a costly layer of bureaucracy to building maintenance and renovations.
It did not help that the Strand had just concluded a costly renovation after pipes exploded in the building’s basement, shattering windows on the ground floor. Altshuler said the city’s permitting process had delayed installation of replacement windows for an extended period. Store management’s confidence in the process sank further when they saw that the landmarks commission letter had at first been misaddressed.
Bass Wyden contested the landmark decision, and after the commission scheduled a crucial meeting during the holiday season, she felt compelled to reach out to customers for support. To Altshuler, the timing suggested that the officials were unaware or unconcerned with the seasonal demands of a retail operation.
“No matter what was presented to the commission, we were hearing the same thing,” Altshuler said. “They would say, ‘Everything will be good,’ but they weren’t addressing the specific issues that were really relevant to us.”
The commission designated the building a landmark on June 11, and the way the landmarking process was conducted has left lingering resentment. “I feel like if the concerns were addressed more specifically and deliberatively, that would have felt less dismissive,” Altshuler said.
Chris Doeblin, owner of Book Culture’s four New York City stores, is even more blunt in his take on local and state leaders after the rapid implementation of New York’s $15 minimum wage law placed his businesses in jeopardy. “They’re poorly informed about the range of issues facing storefront businesses,” Doeblin said, “and they have very little creativity in terms of their approach to legislation.”
In a public call for support, Doeblin assailed tax incentives that New York City was prepared to grant Amazon in its ultimately failed bid to house the company’s second headquarters. In meetings with city officials, he said they were friendly, but did not understand the tax contributions that businesses like his make to the city. “You would think that level of economic study would be part and parcel of the duty of our government with the retail industry,” Doeblin said. “Instead, they don’t really understand the link between the health of these storefronts and how that radiates into the community, the homes, and the life of our community.”
Doeblin has raised over $200,000 from customers and investors toward his $750,000 target and remains optimistic that he can keep his stores open, but he also believes small businesses need to band together to create a supportive legislative agenda.
Oren Teicher, CEO of the American Booksellers Association, concurred with Doeblin. “I think collectively, as local indie businesses,” he said, “the argument to be made about the impact we have on the local economy does dictate that local governments ought to be looking at the collective value of indie businesses.”
Despite the challenges, Teicher also thinks there is reason to be optimistic that efforts like the one proposed by Doeblin to create a small business legislative agenda can be successful. “The overall good news in America,” he said, “is that independent businesses like hardware stores, coffee shops, bike shops, and toy stores are a lot stronger than they are popularly perceived to be.”