In 1997 Alan Beatts founded Borderlands Books in San Francisco, and for almost two decades the indie store, which specializes in fantasy, science fiction, horror, and mystery, has weathered challenges from Barnes & Noble, Amazon, and e-books. But when the city passed a law raising its minimum wage to $15 per hour by 2018, Beatts announced he was closing up shop. The story made headlines, catapulting him into the national spotlight.
“Conservative news outlets felt that I was going to be a perfect person to get to talk about how big government was destroying my independent business,” Beatts says in Episode 144 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast. “They were wrong.”
Actually he supports the new law—though he wishes there was an exemption for small businesses like his—and thinks it will probably be good for the city. But the reality is that his bookstore is one business that simply isn’t profitable enough to pay higher wages. That may not matter. In the wake of his announcement, hundreds of supporters have signed up as “sponsors,” raising enough money to keep the store open—and maybe even allowing him to expand.
Borderlands isn’t the only bookstore to benefit from crowdfunding. Singularity & Co. in Brooklyn owes its very existence to Kickstarter. The store was founded by Cici James and Ash Kalb, who launched a “Save the SciFi” campaign in 2012 to preserve rare pulp novels as e-books. They ended up raising far more than they asked for, and decided to use the extra cash to open their own shop.
“We had all the money from the Kickstarter, and we had thousands of books filling our apartment, and we just decided to open a store, mostly to hold the books,” says James.
It’s hard to compete with Amazon on selection or prices, and indie stores don’t try. Instead they offer experiences that can’t be replicated online, such as browsing bookshelves, meeting local sci-fi fans, and attending live readings.
“It’s nice to be a community hub, and that’s definitely the role that we’re taking on more and more,” says James.
Beatts is optimistic about the future. He thinks that by now his business has suffered about as much attrition as it’s going to, and that his remaining customers are likely to keep shopping at Borderlands for years to come. The success of the sponsorship drive seems to bear that out.
“If people are shopping in a physical bookstore, they’re doing it because they want to,” he says. “They’re not doing it because they haven’t heard of Amazon.”
Listen to our complete interview with Alan Beatts and Cici James in Episode 144 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above), and check out some highlights from the discussion below.
Cici James on forgotten classics:
“My favorite read was actually the 1895 one—it’s called Mr. Stranger’s Sealed Packet . We became intrigued because it’s a book that’s often talked about in people’s introductions to their scholarly work about sci-fi, but we could not find a copy anywhere, except in the Columbia University Library, but they wouldn’t let us come photograph it—I don’t know why, they were just very covetous of it. But shortly after we had that disappointment we found a copy of that book in a nunnery in Virginia, who had just, for no particular reason, uploaded their library online—their personal nun library—and that book happened to be in it. So we called them and said, ‘I don’t know if you know you have this book, but we’d love to come photograph it.’ So we went down there, and my husband and I stayed in separate beds—because no sex at the nunnery—and took a photograph of every single page.”
Cici James on bookstore events:
“We have a reading series where we invite our favorite local writers to read their favorite sci-fi authors, or authors based on a theme—so we’ve had a Lovecraft night, we’ve had Halloween, we had Star Trek novels, etc. And that’s called ‘Lust for Genre,’ and that’s been pretty popular and cool amongst the kids. We’ve also had a topless book club come rent out the space, where girls just wanted to read books topless, so that’s what they did. They gave me 50 bucks and I sat there—with my shirt on. We also do a lot of film shoots there. … Everything from little indie films to Saturday Night Live, who did a digital short there. … It was before Andy Samberg left. It’s pretty old. It’s the one where he spells out a really long word. It’s not one of the most popular ones—it wasn’t like ‘Dick in a Box’ or anything.”
Alan Beatts on opening a new bookstore:
“I think that it is a better time now than it was when I opened. Borders going out of business and the probable shrinking or collapse of Barnes & Noble [is] leaving a space for physical bookstores that didn’t exist, so I think that that makes it a good time to open a bookstore. I think that business has stabilized around e-books temporarily, and so I think that makes it a good time to open a bookstore as well. That said, the book business has never been a very profitable one, and it is very difficult, and so I think that if someone really wants to run a bookstore, now’s a good time to do it. But if you don’t really feel that drive, don’t open a bookstore, because you won’t make a lot of money and you’ll work very, very hard to do it. It’s kind of like being a writer, except with writing you might hit the jackpot and turn into James Patterson or Stephanie Meyer. Running a bookstore, that’s never going to happen. If you get to make a living, you are at the top of your game and winning, as a bookseller.”
Alan Beatts on young readers:
“I’ll tell you, if you want to get the absolute royal, red carpet treatment at Borderlands, be under 16 and express an interest in science fiction. You will get mobbed. The clerk will start talking to you, then I or the general manager will hear the conversation and be like, ‘Wait, it’s a young one! We can go convert them,’ and we’ll come out and start talking to you. We will do anything, because it is something that we feel very passionate about. And the thing that’s neat too is that readers who are 14 or 15 years old, they’re so excited about it, and it’s such a pleasure talking to them, and recommending books to them, and getting book recommendations from them, it’s wonderful.”