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Food for Thought Books Collective in Amherst makes appeal for support amid financial woes

Collective member Grace Johnston said Thursday that the businesses’ financial records indicate that unless the collective brings in $10,000 a month over the projected sales expected this summer, it will not be able to meet expenses.

As a result it is seeking donations, asking people to purchase memberships and simply calling for customers to buy more books there.

“That’s very real,” Johnston said of the potential closing. “We’ve waited and done a lot of back and forth internally about whether that is actually true and gone over things with our new bookkeeping assistant.”

What the collective decided is that it needs to make a public appeal for funds while it alters its business model. Though changes are in the works, she said, the business needs money now.

“As it stands it’s not possible for us to make it through the summer to make that shift,” she said. “It was clear we needed to do some major outreach and tell people what is going on, be really clear about our situation.”

In the past, seasonal textbooks sales have carried the operation over the summer months when business slows down, Johnston said. The textbook market, however, has dried up, as students are generally buying their books online. She said this will be the first school year that the store does not sell them.

“We’ve operated with this large of a space and a model that relied on textbook sales for so long that there isn’t an instant fix,” she said. “We don’t have another situation that we can just plug in.”

An appeal on the collective’s website says that the “increasingly corporate and Amazon-centered” book industry “has been coming down hard for some time and the ‘convenience’ of online sales has dramatically reduced the size of the community that perused our shelves.” As a result, it says, staff time and benefits have been slashed and a crew of volunteers has been essential to maintaining a full calendar of events and keeping the shelves filled.

The collective is selling annual memberships for $35 — $25 to low income people and $50 for a two-person household. A lifetime membership can be had for $500. In addition, the collective is planning more public events and charging community groups for the use of its space, Johnston said. There now will be a sliding fee, $40 to $300, for two- to three-hour events. She said the fee is also necessary to compensate for the time store staff puts into preparing for events.

She said the collective is also exploring collaborations with other businesses and organizations. One group is the All Things Local Store, a year-round indoor farmers and crafts market seeking to rent the space next door. That storefront was formerly home to the Souper Bowl restaurant.

Ultimately, though, the two groups decided their business models were too different for a collaboration to work, Johnston said. “But we’re excited that they might be there. They are great,” she said.

Johnston said the collective also has questioned whether it is feasible to continue in such a large space. She said the hope is to find more ways to use the store to highlight the different communities that frequent it, such as people who identify as gay, lesbian, transgender and bisexual.

“Food for Thought provides a space for people’s hearts and minds,” she said. “It’s not just a retail space. For that reason, taking it away weighs heavily on us.”

Johnston said the recent effort to add a so-called pop-up shop that sold locally handcrafted items in the store only lasted a month because keeping it going with just volunteer support wasn’t workable. “It was too hard in the long run,” she said.

Some have suggested the collective consider adding a cafe, but the store doesn’t have the infrastructure for it, she said. “It would be really cool to offer space to rent for a cafe,” she said. All suggestions are welcomed, she added.

Three months ago landlord Barry Roberts granted the collective a six-month decrease in rent from $4,300 to $3,600 to help out, and plans for fundraising events are in the works, she said.

On Aug. 1 there is an oral history open mic planned in which participants can talk about Food for Thought and their own stories that relate to the store.

“A lot of relationships have formed here at events and meetings,” she said.

A reading group centered on the book “Active Hope” by Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone is planned for August, as is a coloring book workshop for September along with some readings.

An email sent to customers this week bore the subject line, “Imagine Amherst without Food for Through Books.” Johnston certainly doesn’t want to. “Whether or not books sales are doing well, I feel if we were to leave Amherst or to not exist as a book store any more we’d really be lacking community space.”

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