Tuesday, June 25, 2019

Book Culture


Book Culture has been on the Upper West Side since 1997, when it was founded as Labyrinth Books. Since then, it has expanded from one to four shops. It's a great local business and much beloved. But now, owner Chris Doeblin has announced in a letter (below) that Book Culture is in danger of closing--but it's unclear why.

UPDATE: I spoke with Doeblin about the situation. He told me that his landlords have been "terrific." Columbia University is one of them and "they're trying to keep us open and have made adjustments over the years." Amazon, however, "has just been devastating. A huge number of people shop there without being reminded enough of the value of having storefronts in the neighborhood."

The biggest bite, right now, says Doeblin is the 50% increase in wages. "We've not been able to grow fast enough to deal with the increase," he told me, "and we've had to lay people off. But I think we can make it, if we have more financing."

To that end, he's hoping for an angel. Either a wealthy investor or the city. "I'm hoping that the city will underwrite a loan for us. What would really help us is a significant loan from a local bank that's subsidized." He noted that the city and state "pulled a lot of strings for Amazon and every luxury building in New York City," so why not small businesses like Book Culture?

Doeblin also says he wrote the letter to get the word out. "I want people to hear from me about what it's really like" to run a small business in the city. "I want to direct people's attention to a better idea of the future."

Doeblin sent out the following letter and accompanying video on Facebook:

To all our members and patrons, to Mayor De Blasio, Governor Cuomo, Speaker Johnson, Gale Brewer, all City Council members, fellow citizens of New York, neighbors;

My name is Chris Doeblin and I am the owner and operator of Book Culture. We run 4 storefront bookstores in New York City, 3 in Manhattan and 1 in LIC Queens. We have been in business for over 22 years.

There is a situation that I need help with and I want to address as large a group as possible in the hopes of finding a solution. I hope to also make a statement about the future of our city.

Our 4 stores are in danger of closing soon and we need financial assistance or investment on an interim basis to help us find our footing. This is true in spite of the fact that business has been good and we are widely supported and appreciated.

Book Culture's stores generate over $650,000 in sales tax revenue each year for the city and state. We employ over 75 people at peak season and had a payroll over $1.7M last year. Book Culture has always been committed to paying our employees above minimum wage, both before and after the increase. All of that payroll along with the $700,000 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, Amazon’s HQ2 in LIC for example, included a cost to taxpayers of $48,000 per job. There is a history here of local government aiding business when it produces a return for the locality.

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.

The jobs we create aren’t tech jobs but our jobs offer a toehold to young people coming to New York, often times trained in the humanities and heading for careers in the arts or other cultural industries; to students, artists, dancers and writers. We have been employing young native New Yorkers forever too, often as a first job. Publishing and bookselling have long been a significant part of New York City’s cultural and economic foundation.

Book Culture does a lot more for our communities than act as an economic engine. As an organization, we can take an empty storefront and spin it into a wonderful community asset that transforms a neighborhood. That takes vision, creativity, courage and entrepreneurial talent. This is a set of qualities that a city, any city or community, ought to reward and empower.

This combination of talent and industry, so common in smaller businesses is too often overlooked and not given the support and nurture that it deserves. The capital pools that allow projects like Amazon’s near entree into New York or building projects like Hudson Yards aren’t available for small businesses like ours. But they ought to be. We have been financed by credit card, by 30% a year interest loans and by remortgaging our home.

For too long we have accepted that businesses need only serve their profit orientation as though it were an obvious fact, a natural law of the 21st century. As someone dedicated to our city and nation, as a leader building a company, and its culture, as a parent and citizen, I know we can do better. Book Culture as a business is dedicated to serving the community it inhabits. This orientation to the common good rather than extracting wealth is the crucial distinction.

We do not reject large business, or internet commerce, but we know that we can’t build a future by accepting that businesses simply extract and accumulate. We need to support a culture of businesses that serve our communities holistically. And we need to move to a greater diversity of ownership not towards more consolidation.

The families that own America’s 2 largest retailers, Amazon and Walmart, just 2 families, have accumulated over $250 Billion in privately held wealth. That is a 1⁄4 of a $1 trillion!
This grotesque inequity is one of the gravest dangers posed to our democracy, the civil society and the communities we hope to build for our children.

As a parent who has served as treasurer of our schools PA I have grown to see everything as a teachable moment; what are we teaching our children? What are our values here?
If each of those families had only, ONLY, $1 billion, we could have spent $2 million for every single public school in America.

But what really sets off the distinction for our future America is that these 2 companies, like so many others, still arrive in our communities with their hands out asking for more. And they arrive in our governments by way of lobbyists asking them not to represent our children and the best future we hope to create for them. They arrive to continue to pile on to the wealth of the shareholders.

It doesn’t have to be this way. Companies like Book Culture, that are entwined with and dedicated to their communities, offer a better way forward.

Lastly, Book Culture contributes simply by being what we are, storefront businesses active in a community. We add to the street life and Jane Jacobs’s ideal of a neighborhood where people interact, face to face with each other in the simple conduct of our lives. Our shops light up the evening streets with a welcoming inviting space. We provide a place for parents and children to visit together and engage in books. We are a place for quiet, or conversation, discovery and reflection.

We need financial help to continue our transition.

If you run the city or the state or if you have the means to assist, or even if it simply means calling and emailing and writing to the local city council member where you live and the mayor and governor, please do so.

The price of doing business doesn't have to be incurred by the people. The price of doing business should be more about serving our common welfare.

Chris Doeblin


Greg58g said...

I feel your pain, the same forces are at work in Oakland and San Francisco.
One quibble, "A Bitterly Nostalgic Look At A City In The Process Of Going Extinct."
"going extinct" is millennial newspeak, the correct phrase is "becoming extinct."

Eric and Tracey said...

Amazon is a predatory retailer, as their gross margin from retail sales is near or possibly even below zero. This means they are losing money from retail sales at the same time they are destroying brick and mortar stores. Amazon, despite its fancy warehouse machinery and shipping services and movie channels, loses money. Their entire profit is from leasing their excess server capacity. That’s what AWS is. So while Amazon is destroying brick and mortar retailers, robbing cities of property tax revenue for schools, libraries and parks, and creating empty storefronts that blights communities, they LOSE MONEY DOING IT!!

Amazon only survived to this day due to a conspiracy with Wall Street, who understood that if they continued to subsidize billions of losses for years, one day Amazon (and its investors) would effectively control all retail and then have monopoly power.

America has sold out its small business community for the sake of creating the richest man in the world. Bezos and his ilk should be shunned. Amazon should be forced to disclose their margins by sector and reveal the scam that is destroying American small towns and main streets everywhere. Amazon is not doing it better and thus reaping well earned success; it is a voracious predator that violates antitrust law with no accountability.

Elinor said...

WOW - I'm Canadian, and stumbled upon your Blog accidentally. I'm glad I found it, and I'm glad I read this post. If I lived in NYC, I would shop at Book Culture. I support small locally-owned business as much as possible. Walmart has totally invaded Canada - I NEVER shop there. I try to avoid shopping on Amazon, but sometimes it's just more convenient (usually what I'm buying is not books - it's fitness equipment, household items, small appliances, etc.). I've just been to Book Culture's website and had a look - I would donate to their cause. Only two things are stopping me: 1. I can't afford to (at least not right now), and 2. Canadians don't get a tax break for donating to an American cause. I think that's just retarded, but I don't make the laws here. I really, really hope they reach their goal and if at some point soon I can donate, I definitely will. Best Wishes and Good Luck to Book Culture!!!

Elinor said...

...and I just read Eric and Tracey's comment above. I am no longer going to shop at Amazon either. I'm going to print off my Wish Lists (I have both an American and a Canadian account), and I'm going to delete both of them. People have absolutely NO IDEA what Amazon is doing - including me - until I read that comment. Thank you for posting it.

Mike said...

I don't think increasing the minimal wage will help.