Ga. Bookstore Seeks Funds To Stay Open

The owner of Wordsmiths bookstore in Decatur, Ga., is appealing for donations to help pay his bills. Word of his plight is spreading in the literary world. But some wonder whether it's appropriate for a for-profit enterprise to ask for donations.

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The economic news of late has been full of stories about big bailouts of big institutions. Now a story about a much smaller enterprise turning to the public for help. The owner of Wordsmiths, a well-known independent bookstore in Decatur, Georgia, is asking for donations to help pay off his debt and stay in business.

NPR's Lynn Neary reports.

LYNN NEARY: Even before the current economic downturn, a lot of independent bookstores have been struggling to stay afloat. Faced with competition from chains and big box stores, independents try to create a sense of community with their customers - a community bound by a love of books.

So when Zachary Steele, the owner of Wordsmiths, found himself facing a mountain of debt, he went online to ask his loyal customers to contribute money to what he considers a worthy cause: keeping his store open.

Mr. ZACHARY STEELE (Owner, Wordsmiths): Honestly, the only thing that made me think that I could do it was that if I open my mouth, maybe it would work.

NEARY: In his message, Steele was honest about his plight. We're not fighting declining sales, customer apathy, or even a lagging book market, he wrote. Instead, he explained, the store had originally opened in a bad location. Now in a better space, it had a second chance to succeed - if Steele could pay off his debt. In other words, Steele faces the kind of problem that many small businesses face. But bookstores, Steele says, are different. They play a special role in people's lives.

Mr. STEELE: I like to think of my business as a little bit more than just a retail operation since we work so closely with so many literary causes here in the area, and I'd love to be able to keep doing that.

NEARY: Among those who agree with Steele is Mark Sarvas, who wrote about Wordsmiths' troubles on his literary blog, The Elegant Variation. Sarvas says he couldn't bear to see another independent bookstore going out of business. He says this isn't the first time an independent bookseller has turned to the book reading community for help, though he acknowledges it is unusual to ask people to donate money to a for-profit business.

Mr. MARK SARVAS (Blogger, Elegant Variation): It can be read either as a sign of how desperate the times are for booksellers, or also, it could be read as a sign of the creativity and the original lengths to which, you know, booksellers are willing to try to go to keep serving their communities. And, obviously, if they are successful, in reverse, it's a measure of how much communities want to keep their bookstores, that they'll step up and they'll help them out.

Professor TYLER COWEN (Economics, George Mason University): If they really want to help out the needy, why would he be your first choice? Maybe the community is better off with a guy who can make the bookstore turn a profit.

NEARY: Tyler Cowen teaches economics at George Mason University in Virginia. He's not convinced that bookstores should be exempt from the vagaries of a market-driven economy.

Prof. COWEN: I think we all like to have this notion that an independent bookstore is owned and run by someone who loves books and just doesn't care about money as the only thing in life, and that's great. But still, the store has to at least break even. And if this guy can't do that, there's just no way he'll stay in business, with or without charity.

NEARY: Zachary Steele says he's not asking for charity. He plans to give something back to those who donate: special discounts or store credit, for example.

Mr. STEELE: I'm not asking for a handout. I'm asking for help, just to get over the hump. And then, you know, then I intend on making it up to everybody and my desire would be, you know, to go above and beyond that afterward.

NEARY: Give backs or not, Mark Sarvas says, maybe the rules should be relaxed for bookstores.

Mr. SARVAS: Perhaps there's something not entirely rational about the love of books. It is a labor of love. People write books out of labors of love. They read them, it's a labor of love. And they certainly devote what is a spectacularly unremunerative way of life to selling them as a labor of love.

NEARY: Apparently, there are a fair number of people who agree. Wordsmiths is already getting promises of donations from people in the community, as well as around the country. And plans for events to benefit the bookstore are under way.

Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.

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