What It Takes to Open a Bookstore

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By JONAH ENGEL BROMWICH for The New York Times

For more than 20 years, small bookstores have been vanishing, their business models under pressure from large competitors and internet retailers.

In the last several years, though, there are signs that independent bookstores are making a comeback in New York and other cities, in part through innovative financing that gives neighborhoods a stake in the businesses.

A case in point: Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting, the owners of Greenlight Bookstore in Fort Greene, have just opened a new location in a second Brooklyn neighborhood, Prospect Lefferts Garden.

I’m surely not the only bookworm who has fantasized about working in a bookstore: The quiet, convivial atmosphere; the rows of spines with titles you have always meant to read; the enthusiastic conversations about books.

But as I learned, it’s not quite as relaxing as it looks.

In interviews, the Greenlight owners and other bookstore entrepreneurs in New York walked me through some of the decisions that need to be taken into account in such a venture.

Financing

When Ms. Fitting and Ms. Bagnulo opened their first store, they found that banks were unwilling to lend to them.

So they asked friends, families and neighbors for loans of $1,000 or more, and pledged to pay those loans back (with interest) over the course of five years. The store did not even have an opening date, Ms. Bagnulo said, so the backers were taking “a leap of faith.”

They raised about $75,000 for the Fort Greene location that way, which helped to persuade conventional lenders to come on board.

For the new store, they wanted to cleave to that model.

With the help of 95 people, they raised $242,600 for the location, some of it from friends and family but the majority from people in the neighborhood.

The lessons from Greenlight are being put to use in other places. Brad Johnson, the store manager of a location of a California bookstore chain, Diesel, is using a community lender program that draws direct inspiration from the Brooklyn store.

Janet Geddis, the founder and owner of Avid Bookshop in Athens, Ga., also used a version of the community lending idea to open her first location, also using several other lines of support, including a crowdfunding campaign on Indiegogo.

Emily Russo, the co-owner of a bookstore named Print in Portland, Me., used an even smaller community to raise money for opening the store, putting together about half the necessary capital with the help of her parents and her husband.

And a Bronx-born entrepreneur, Noëlle Santos, is relying partly on Indiegogo and on her own savings to open The Lit Bar in the borough.

Geo Ong, who has worked at Diesel and will manage the new Greenlight location, said that the phenomenon of independents opening with these sorts of models across the country gave the lie to a recent narrative that “bookstores don’t succeed.”

“A lot of a bookstore’s success is case-by-case,” he said. “But the fact that some bookstores are thriving and a lot of bookstores are opening means that there’s something inherently successful in the model.”