Book Culture's future at risk, warns New York indie owner

Book Culture's future at risk, warns New York indie owner

The owner of New York's Book Culture bookshops says the business's four stores are in danger of closing unless they receive help from the city. 

In an open letter to city officials including Mayor Bill de Blasio, Governor Andrew Cuomo and Speaker Corey Johnson, Book Culture owner Chris Doeblin appealed for "financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing".

The mini-chain, which has been trading for 22 years, currently has three bookshops in Manhattan and one in Long Island City, Queens. 

Doeblin said despite good trade and community support, rising payroll costs, which have increased by 50% in the last two and a half years, have forced Book Culture to make cuts in order to survive. With 75 people employed at peak season, the wage bill topped $1.7m (£1.3m) last year.  He added Book Culture's shops generate more than $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state and appealed for financial help from the authorities. 

"All of that payroll along with the $700,000 (£550,000) a year that we pay in rent goes right back into the New York economy, which is why I address our government here. Many large development plans, Amazons HQ2 in Long Island City for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 (£37k)per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality," said Doeblin. "Every one of our employees, including my family, spends virtually all our income in the city. We shop here, eat here, pay our rent, use the MTA, and all those expenses roll right back into the community economy, to the benefit of all of us. It’s the multiplier effect of storefront businesses. It isn’t a huge sum of our economy taken by itself, but it is integral to the fabric of our city."

Doeblin told The Bookseller he hopes to secure a line of credit written for as much as $1m (£786,000). He said: "The problem of the minimum wage was that it happened so fast. At the end of 2016 we were paying $10.25 and this January it was at $15.25 per hour. We have tried to grow and achieve some benefit by achieving scale and we have been trying to eliminate payroll and redistribute the tasks of operation to make it work. With luck and perseverance, we will find the financing to survive. Timing is difficult. Somewhere out there is a tipping point where we just can't access any new merchandise. And then you're done. 

"I want to ask our city in particular because as I have stated in my letter, we are a valuable city asset in many ways and moreover our city government has been too much in service of giant development, tax abatement for projects that don't serve communities and basically the rich getting richer. I want to draw a line and indicate to all of us a better future for our city, a different set of values. Above all an expectation that we can build a future that we hope for."

Doeblin said he hopes the city will create a plan to help small businesses that will ensure a greater diversity of ownership rather than consolidation. 

He told the Gothamist: "I think we need at least $500,000 (£390,000) in a term loan but I hope to find $750,000 (£590,000) to a $1m (£786,000). I would like the city to immediately [guarantee] such a loan and then embark on a serious plan to improve the odds of small business in New York. I would like to be on that panel too, because there is a lack of creative optimistic thinking and action."

It is unclear just how long Book Culture's shops can survive. He added: "It becomes harder to find any vendors that will ship to us, unpaid debts to vendors and creditors will eventually be foreclosed. An old saying is 'slowly at first and then all at once.'"

Responding to the open letter, Manhattan Borough President Gale A Brewer threw her support behind Book Culture. In a statement, Brewer said: "Independent stores like Book Culture should get more support from the government. My husband and I are regulars at our local Book Culture, and to see it close would be devastating for the communities they serve.”