NEW YORK — For years, independent bookstores have taken creative steps to fight off challenges from Amazon.com and the superstores by building in-house espresso bars, hosting members-only lunches with authors, and selling birthday cards, toys, and trinkets.
In 2013, it has come to this: asking their customers for donations.
Crowdfunding is sweeping through the bookstore business, the latest tactic for survival in a market that is dominated by Amazon, with its rock-bottom prices, and Barnes & Noble, with its dizzying in-store selection. It is hardly a sustainable business model, but it buys some time and gives customers a feeling of helping a favorite cause and even preserving a civic treasure.
In San Francisco, a campaign for Adobe Books successfully raised $60,000 on Indiegogo.com in March after the store faced a rent increase and nearly went out of business.
In Asheville, N.C., the Spellbound Children’s Bookshop collected more than $5,000 when it appealed to customers for help moving to a new location.
In the Flatiron district of New York, Books of Wonder raised more than $50,000 in an online campaign last fall after the recession and other losses depleted its financial resources.
Websites such as Indiegogo and Kickstarter, originally made for the public financing of creative projects, have simplified the logistics of raising money, and bookstores facing financial distress are seizing the opportunity. They can set up a Web page explaining what their fund-raising goal is, why they are asking for it, and what the deadline is. Donors pitch in as little as $5 or $10 with a few clicks and a credit card number. Peter Glassman, who owns Books of Wonder, said he turned to a fund-raising campaign only as a last resort.
“I thought, given the financial strains we’re under at the moment, perhaps this is the way to prevent us from getting into a really desperate situation,” Glassman said.
He said it was the first time in 30 years he was willing to admit the need for help. “You never tell people your problems,’’ he said. “The worst you say is, ‘Business is a little tight.’ ”
But that kind of tough-it-out attitude seems to have gone the way of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The independent bookstores that remain have taken a hard-nosed approach to their business, more willing to experiment with new technologies and to tap the carefully cultivated loyalty of their customers.
Josh Mills, longtime manager of The Bookstore in Chico, Calif., made a public appeal for $35,000 on Indiegogo when the owner decided to close the store and Mills stepped up to buy it.
In less than two months, he had collected $36,068, mostly in chunks of $15 and $25 from locals who were outraged at the thought of the bookstore shutting down.
Donations seemed to come from everywhere: Mills received $25 from one former customer in Hawaii who heard about the store’s plight via e-mail from a friend in France. Acquaintances threw local fund-raisers and funneled the cash into the online campaign.
“I felt strange about asking for money that way — baring my soul and sharing my personal business is not what I do,” said Mills, who now owns the store. “Bookstores are sort of an endangered industry for lots of reasons. But it would have left a huge hole in our little community if we had gone away.”
Many independent bookstores said that despite the challenges to their business, they were doing just fine. Some of them are crowdfunding not as a means of survival, but as a way to expand.