It has come time to end the experiment in cooperative economics known as People’s Books Cooperative.
Over the past nine years, we showed that a cooperatively owned radical bookstore could exist within the harsh climate facing all independent bookstores.
Surviving in this climate required an ability to adapt to changing conditions, something we did often. When we first transitioned the business from a sole-proprietorship into a community-owned cooperative, we established a new stream of revenue in the form of textbook sales to UW-Milwaukee students, covered much of our labor costs with volunteer member labor, and built up a community of supporters by soliciting new members and holding a range of events in the bookstore.
In 2012 we made a big decision to move from our location on Locust and Maryland to our current location in Riverwest. At the time, we believed that declining textbook sales could be supplemented by the increased sales we hoped would come in part from relocating in a business district with higher foot traffic. Textbook sales to UWM instructors continued to decline and although Riverwest as a neighborhood has been very supportive, we simply did not generate the sales necessary to pay our bills.
In the spring of 2015, after several community gatherings and discussion, the membership of People’s Books Co-op empowered our employee to convene a special ad-hoc steering committee that would explore new ways to generate revenue for the Co-op. These ideas included serving as a satellite location for a local print shop, something we did and which generated a small amount of revenue. Another idea was to open our own print shop and resource center, something we wanted to do after getting a cafe up and running.
For much of 2015 until the present, the ad-hoc steering committee focused on establishing a cafe in the bookstore space. The idea was to make minor renovations to the existing kitchen so we could sell espresso drinks and baked goods, and add 12-16 seats inside the bookstore space. Our committee spent countless hours developing a plan for the cafe business, meeting with professional contractors, planning the renovations, and researching and understand the process for getting all the necessary permits and complying with city, state and federal regulations.
The process of planning the cafe business was exhausting but we made steady progress. Within the first few months we had raised $7500 in cash to pay for the renovations and get the cafe off the ground. We met with professional electricians, plumbers, and carpenters who would do some of the work we needed. Several others offered to donate their time and skills. Sadly, the most exhausting part of the process was dealing with our landlords, whom we believed were on our side and wanted us to succeed.
Soon after deciding to focus on our cafe plans in the summer of 2015 we proposed a new commercial lease to our landlords, who were generous enough to reduce our rent significantly and agreed to negotiate a new lease. However, despite the fact that our ad-hoc committee included a neighborhood attorney who specializes in landlord-tenant law, we were unable to reach a final agreement after 10 months of negotiations.
On July 1, after four years of paying our rent on time and 10 months of negotiations to renew our lease, including many concessions on our part, our landlords abruptly rescinded their offer to extend our lease and informed us that we needed to vacate the premises. They have graciously given us up to three months to close up shop.
People’s Books Co-op has been a labor of love for many people. When a small group of neighbors decided to start the Co-op in 2007, the bookstore known for the past 33 years as People’s was facing immanent closure. Chris Chiu, the founder and owner, wanted to retire, but his loyal customers wanted the store to remain open. Chris donated his unsold stock of an estimated 18,000 books, $10,000 in cash and $7,000 in publisher credits to the new cooperative. Since Chris took that leap of faith, People’s Books Co-op has employed and provided job training to three individuals, two of whom have have gone on to professional careers in book buying. Dozens of volunteers have put in nearly 30,000 hours of labor to keep the store open over the past nine years. A rotating cast of a couple dozen die-hards have served the co-op as board members, each doing their best to provide support to our one part-time staff person.
Without a doubt, three individuals in particular took on most of the burden for keeping the Co-op operating on daily basis, over the past nine years. Jim Draeger volunteered the first six months of the Co-op’s existence, waiting until the first semester of textbook sales was in the bank before accepting a part-time paid position of 20 hours a week. In 2010, after several years of volunteering, Seth Schuster replaced Jim, who wanted to have babies and live in the suburbs. Seth oversaw our transition to our new location in Riverwest two years later. In the fall of 2015, another long time volunteer, Malynda Jackson, replaced Seth, who wanted to work in the suburbs but live in Riverwest. These three people have had to shoulder not only the daily labors of keeping the doors open, but the emotional burden of managing volunteers, board members, and the public identify of the co-op.
We would like to thank all who have contributed to keeping this bookstore running for the past nine years, especially our members and volunteers. Without the time, support, and financial contributions that you have given us year after year we wouldn’t have lasted as long as we have. Our doors will close August 31st. We hope to see you one last time before then.
The above was originally posted to People’s Books Cooperative’s Facebook page on August 3, 2016.