Point Reyes Books pioneers member-supported model

10/20/2011

Point Reyes Books owner Steve Costa’s fiercest rival is not another West Marin mom-and-pop bookseller with more expansive inventory. His real literature-dealing foe doesn’t have a brick-and-mortar presence here or anywhere else in the world; instead, its bookshelves line the digital ether.

The explosive popularity of online retail giant Amazon.com and the recent onslaught of e-books and digital reading devices like the Kindle and iPad have created financial constraints for Costa’s shop that have made it difficult, if not impossible, to stay open while hosting its full slate of author events and benefits during winter months when tourism dips.

In a survey conducted by Costa’s Think Local First West Marin, an organization devoted to promoting local businesses, 60 percent of the region’s residents said they opted for online retailers or chains—like Amazon or Barnes & Noble—instead of independent stores. Facing this trend, rising operational costs and stagnant revenues, Costa has found hope in the unlikely financing mechanism of Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and has spent the last several months designing and tinkering with a new mirror program called Community Supported Bookstore (CSB).

The CSB, which launched Monday, allows customers to deposit anywhere from $150 to $500 into a bookstore account, draw purchases from that balance and receive a 5 percent discount on all items. Just as a farmer uses funds from a CSA to remain afloat during seasons when little or no crops are sold, the bookstore will direct CSB fees toward operational and community events costs during the slower months.

“We’ve come to appreciate the power of CSAs, so it occurred to me why don’t we apply some of these basic principles to the bookstore?” Costa said. “It’s an opportunity for locals to step up and really support the bookstore. To say, ‘I really want this bookstore to survive over time.’ Those dollars really will make a big difference.”

Costa hopes to enroll at least 200 customers in the CSB by the end of 2011 and to have at least 500 members within 12 months. He also thinks it could eventually recruit book shoppers from outside the region and hopes that the model, if successful, might help other struggling independent bookstores.

“If you sat down in the bookstore over the course of a day, I’d say on average there are maybe 10 people who come in and say, ‘Every time I come to Point Reyes, this is like my first stop’ or, ‘I live in the Bay Area and you’re my independent book store of choice,’” he said. “And because we have this e-store, there isn’t any reason why somebody in any part of the world, for that matter, can’t become a member.”

The CSB is not the first time Costa has taken a set of ideals or practices from another industry and applied them to the store. Since he and his wife, Kate Levinson, purchased the shop in 2003, he has used his 40 years of experience as a community organizer to transform what was once the sleepy Brown Study Bookshop with no neighborhood outreach into a community fixture that unites local readers and thinkers, hosts award-winning authors at regular events, and has donated more than a quarter million dollars to local nonprofits.

Nancy Adess, a longtime patron, said that customers and community members should consider the positive impact the store has had when deciding whether to support it through the new program. “The book store needs us,” she said. “But we need the bookstore. We need not only the books and the meeting place, but the way the bookstore has worked to build the community. I think the community doesn’t so much see what the bookstore has done for us.” Hut Landon, executive director of the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, said that Costa and Levinson have always been committed to community development and the success of the program will be reflective of its history.  “I think it’s actually a pretty creative idea,” he said. “If [customers are] willing to do that, it speaks volumes about [the store] and [its] connection to the community. You’re not just investing in Point Reyes Books, you’re investing in the community in general. It’s a nice way to allow their customers to support the bookstore without actually paying anything extra. It’s kind of a win-win.” Costa said that walking the rows of his historic space to discover a rare copy of an old book or an unusual new title is a unique experience that cannot be replicated by a mundane big-box or faceless online entity.

Loyal customer Elisabeth Ptak agreed. “Kate and Steve have created such an atmosphere of warmth and welcome,” she said. “I like a more intimate setting with a good selection, and they have that.”

The CSB program will help Point Reyes Books continue to cultivate relationships with its customers and promote the healthy exchange of ideas that has differentiated the store from its big-name competitors. “There’s sort of a face to this experience of offering up these really powerful objects and our being able to interact and share in this 1000 square foot space,” Costa said. “It really feeds the soul and the heart.”