How a local bookstore went from closing to co-op
March 3, 3 p.m.
At Buffalo Street Books, the thick winter air is permeated by the scent of fresh paper and a tangible feeling of grief. Mournful, rich jazz music flows from the speakers as people in dark coats slowly lift books from their shelves, flipping through wistfully as though saying goodbye to old friends.
But beneath the sorrow, there is an idea, a possibility that these people could save Ithaca’s last independent new bookstore.
Two stern male voices from the office interrupt the tragic scene, as they throw around words like, “corporations,” “money” and “lawyers.” Their tone is rife with frustration, but not at each other.
After a few minutes, one of the men leaves the office and slumps over in a chair in the seating area of the Dewitt Mall store. Bob Proehl’s eyes suggest that he has not had much sleep in the three weeks since Gary Weissbrot, the owner of the store, announced they would be closing
Gary had bought the store five years ago and hired Bob last year to help out and develop programs, and now it looked like their work had failed. Bob is only 32, but on this dreary day he looks older from exhaustion. He rolls up the sleeves of his loose button-down shirt, revealing a tattoo of a radio tower on his forearm. He sighs and runs his hands through his blond hair, parted directly down the middle. He says the news of the closing came as a surprise.
“Gary announced it like four days after we bought a new car. Like, ‘Thanks, you couldn’t have told me this last week?’” he laughs nervously as he takes a gulp of coffee. “He and I went and had a couple drinks and talked about it, then I went out on my own and had some more drinks, and then I went home and told my wife what was going on.”
On the shelf behind him are five antique typewriters, beautiful and romantic but ultimately relics of a bygone time—a time before massive chain bookstores crushed all local shops in their path, and long before people purchased books for e-readers online. The era of local, independent bookstores has come to an end. The store had not experienced a particularly rough year—on the contrary, they sold more college course books than usual this semester. But Gary decided the overall model of the store was unsustainable. As Bob explains, “Something significant had to change.”
In the days following the announcement, the store was flooded with people saying how sad they were. “There’s this long wake that goes on,” Bob says. “You know, people come in, and they’re giving you their condolences. Some of those people you haven’t seen shopping in here forever.”
He began to feel almost angry that people suddenly seemed to care about the store even though they hadn’t been consistent, loyal customers. He gestures with his hands as he explains that, especially in a city where people proclaim to support independent, local stores, he was frustrated that the community would let this happen.
“In a market model, it is not the responsibility of the community to buy books at your store. There’s no duty to do that. … There is an anger, or a sort of resentment that is weirdly directed at the community. And it’s totally inappropriate.”
But Bob had been through this before, when his store No Radio Records shut down a few years ago. This time, he wasn’t going down without a fight. He and Gary had previously discussed turning Buffalo Street Books into a nonprofit over the course of a few years, and now Bob began to think about converting it into a co-op instead. A co-op is owned by a group of members who help make decisions and receive some perks, and it is overseen by a general manager. The concept is not new to Ithaca—after all, a branch of the local food co-op GreenStar is right next door. Bob shifted his focus to the idea of a co-op and asked, “What if we don’t look at Ithaca as a market size, but we look at it as a community?”
His idea was simple, but potentially revolutionary: Let people in the community purchase “shares” of Buffalo Street Books for $250, and then they can vote and help make decisions about how the store is run.
So Bob wrote up his ideas and sent them to his friends at The Ithaca Post. “Tuesday night I wrote up the proposal, and at 2 a.m., it looks really good, right? You’ve just written for like three hours straight, and it’s totally raving, manifesto-style.”
He says that part of his proposal was a challenge to the Ithaca community to take action instead of just talking about how much they love local stores. He explains his tone as, “I’m tired of listening to it. I want to see it. If you want to do something about it, here. This is what we can do.”
Bob then discussed the idea with Gary, who expressed his support. Their next step was to circulate the proposal as widely as possible.
“You send out a four-page email to 300 people, and you don’t really expect that anybody’s going to take the time to read it.”
But the email went out at 2 on a Thursday afternoon, and by the time Bob left the store at 5 p.m. Friday, people had already pledged $20,000. Realizing that his co-op idea was actually feasible, he set a goal of $200,000 to start the business. At this rate, he is cautiously optimistic that they will succeed. He smiles and takes another sip of his coffee.
“There’s that chance that you put something out there and you put a challenge out to people, and they pick it up and run further with it than you possibly could have conceived they would have, and they totally shock you with their willingness to be active and to think of themselves as a community and to act on behalf of that.”
March 30, 4:30 p.m.
Bob Proehl is tired. His voice is slow and labored as he crosses his legs and leans over in his chair, his face looking as worn as the faded carpets beneath.
“There’s a lot to be done. A lot of it is either out of my hands or over my head.”
One might expect a more celebratory tone from him, considering that his idea has saved the store from going out of business. They received an overwhelming response from the community and exceeded their initial goal, but they soon realized they would need more money to thrive as a co-op. They have about $300,000 in shares pledged and have started to actually collect the money. Now, Bob and the other members of the steering committee have temporarily closed the store so they can focus on the legal and financial aspects of the transition from a conventional business to a co-op.
“It would be nice to think that we hit that goal and balloons come down from the ceiling and there’s confetti and trumpets, but there really hasn’t been that kind of moment for me at least.”
They hired an attorney to write the articles of incorporation and, despite New York state’s record for refusing many such requests, their paperwork went through on the first try. That isn’t to say the rest has been as smooth—Bob and the other steering committee members have had to deal with money issues, complete mounds of paperwork and sift through legal jargon.
Meanwhile, people have continued to purchase shares of the new co-op. He says there has been a mix of backgrounds and professions, including several IC and Cornell professors. Even a few local businesses and small publishers have pledged. Some wealthier community members have pledged matching shares, and in one case, an individual pledged $17,000 worth of shares to help them reach their initial goal.
Still, Bob asserts in a weary voice, “We’re not at the relief stage yet.”
Part of the planning stage has been discussions about possible changes to the store. He gestures to an unused wooden desk near him and says he would love to see it transformed into a café space. “We’re thinking tea.” He has also been talking to people at art galleries about displaying local artists’ work at the store, which would further connect the store to the rest of the community. The children’s section is in the process of being renovated as well. These changes will be discussed by the temporary appointed board of directors before any decisions are made. Bob says he owes it to the community to make the store better when it reopens, since the community members are now the owners of the store.
“We want to make it clear that that money isn’t being wasted, that we’re really thinking about what we’re doing and what aspects of what we do we can do better.”
April 23, 7 p.m.
A woman in a cowboy hat taps her feet and strums a guitar as children dance to the music at the grand reopening of Buffalo Street Books. Behind the joyful crowd, Bob Proehl bobs his head and taps his foot, a large grin spreading across his face. This is success.
He laughs and says that even though he knows there is still work to be done, he is ecstatic about how everything has turned out. “We’ve had so much support from the community and from the owners, and we need to foster and continue that. We need to keep people as excited as they are right now, which I think will work.” For now, though, he gets a rare chance to celebrate and relax. “Sleep is my next goal.”
The reopening of Buffalo Street Books had musical performances by local artists, snacks and many customers. People walked around and chatted about how much they like their new bookstore—the co-op is certainly owned by the community. In the course of a few weeks, the store went from one owner to 485 people who have completed their share purchase. Almost 200 additional people have pledged and are in the process of paying for their shares.
Gary Weissbrot, the former owner and new general manager, is finally able to emerge from his office and talk. “It was remarkable in that everybody’s walking around this bookstore with a smile on their face. And I think everybody was really, really happy that the store’s open, a pride of ownership, proud of this town, because everybody thought, Where else could this kind of thing have happened?”
Leigh Keeley, who has worked at the store since Gary bought it five years ago, is busy working the register. In the first day of the new co-op, the store made more than $8,000, including $2,000 in new share purchases. “We all thought we were going to be out of a job, and the store was closing, and it was awful. I mean, pretty depressing. And then this sort of miracle happened.”
Other employees, like Jennifer Groff, agree. “I think that gives us a real sense of community, and then also it gives us kind of a responsibility, like we really owe it to everyone to make it work.”
The store will continue to evolve, and some legal matters still need to be finalized, but today is a time for celebration. Small changes, like the new tea café in the main room, represent large victories.
The brightly painted children’s section has more open space, as kids and their parents lounge on beanbag chairs. Aaron Goldweber, one of the new co-op member-owners, reads to his young child as she plays with a large stuffed polar bear toy. “We just think it’s essential to have a quality, independent new bookstore where we live.”
As for Bob, the anger that fueled his initial manifesto has given way to a renewed faith in the people of Ithaca.
“Ithaca’s an odd little town, and I think this is certainly within the rhetoric of Ithaca that something like this should succeed. I don’t know that the city always lives up to its best self, but in this instance, they totally did.”
Jacquie Simone is a senior journalism and politics major who is excited to start her summer reading with some co-op-purchased books. Email her at [email protected].