It Takes a Village: Eight Tips for Surviving in the Age of Amazon

Buffalo Street Books: saving the world, one bookstore at a time.

It’s University Press Week at AAUP, and we’re excited to participate in the annual UP Week Blog Tour. This year’s theme is “community,” and today’s posts focus on IndieBound, the community of independent bookstores. Find more great reads at our partner presses: University of Texas PressUniversity of Calgary Press, University Press of ColoradoSeminary Co-op BookstoresMcGill-Queen’s University PressDuke University PressNYU PressUniversity Press of Kentucky, and University Press of Kansas.

Next door to Greenstar, Ithaca’s cooperative natural foods market, and down the hall from the legendary Moosewood Restaurant, you’ll find Buffalo Street Books, Ithaca’s cooperatively owned bookstore. In these hard times for the publishing industry, our conspicuously literate college town of 30,000 (50,000 when you include Cornell and Ithaca College’s student bodies) has but four brick and mortar stand-alone bookstores left within its city limits, each staking out its territory: used and rare, science fiction and fantasy, big box, and independent new.

“There is not one person who is depending on this business to be their legacy or their family’s livelihood. In a lean year, that’s a huge advantage.” 

That number isn’t an accident, and it counts as a fragile victory. When the previous owner of Buffalo Street Books decided to close up shop in 2010, unable to see a path forward, community members refused to believe that Ithaca could not sustain even one independent, nonspecialized bookstore. They formed a co-op, sold shares, and bought the business.

Today Buffalo Street Books seemingly thrives. Warmly lit and welcoming, with a wide selection of titles and many cozy reading nooks, it’s rarely empty of visitors. Yet, says general manager Asha Sanaker, it’s extremely difficult, if not impossible, to turn a profit. What is possible, through the co-op model, is to survive, even as a certified livable wage employer. If would-be co-op organizers can navigate the pitfalls and grasp the benefits of shared ownership, they can, perhaps, save independent bookstores from extinction. Below are some words of advice on the benefits and challenges of cooperative ownership from Sanaker. 

1) Benefit: Co-ops spread the pain. For many small business owners, the burden of feeding a family or paying a mortgage is what spells their eventual doom. “The last private owner was going to close for that very reason,” says Sanaker. “It wasn’t sustainable for his household.” At Buffalo Street Books, “nobody’s counting on this. There is not one person who is depending on this business to be their legacy or their family’s livelihood. In a lean year, that’s a huge advantage.”

2) Benefit: Co-ops draw partners. Buffalo Street’s ethos of paying a living wage and providing services to the community through readings and workshops promotes cooperation with other local institutions. Last year, they hit the ceiling of $20K in sales as an individual non-state-contracted vendor to the Ithaca City School District and had comparable sales to Tompkins County Public Library, offering both institutions significant discounts. Buffalo Street’s partners realize that “they’re better off being part of a community that is committed to reading and literacy,” says Sanaker.

3) Benefit: Co-ops encourage a deep level of investment in the local economy. Buffalo Street currently has 686 shareholders (with a share price of $250), having added thirty-six new owners so far this year. With a cap of a single share per owner, no one individual can exert undue influence on co-op policies. Additionally, says Sanaker, “Co-ops do a tremendous service in educating their ownership on how businesses function. Most shareholders aren’t business owners. It’s a real education for them on how our choices as a business affect and are affected by the local economy.”

4) Challenge: It’s not a dictatorship. If you’re a private owner thinking that a co-op might save your business, it can be a head-spinner to give up your autonomy. The manager of a co-op is accountable to the entirety of its ownership. 

5) Challenge: It’s not exactly a democracy either. If you’re starting from scratch, to be viable in the long run, Sanaker urges you not to run the business by committee. Buffalo Street owners elect a board of directors, who hire a general manager to run the business.

6) Challenge: Patience is required. Co-op organizers and managers must be skilled and patient communicators. If you’re not willing or able to engage in unending conversations with shareholders, you should probably not attempt this model.

7) Challenge: Start-ups are capital intensive. Many lenders don’t understand co-op structure. When you have 686 owners, who signs the loan agreement? Buffalo Street was unable to work with a trusted local bank because their bylaws required every owner to sign and be held liable.

8) Challenge: The rules differ. Co-op law is statewide, not federal, so don’t assume one co-op’s experience will be applicable to you. Be sure to know the laws in your state.

Are you ready to save the (reading) world? Here are some links to get you started:

Consumer Federation of America
U.S. Small Business Administration
Cooperative Fund of New England


Elizabeth Kim works as Advertising and Social Media Coordinator at Cornell University Press. Pitch her an idea for a blog post, and follow her very occasional posts on Twitter @aka_bettylee.

It Takes a Village: Eight Tips for Surviving in the Age of Amazon