So You Want to Open a Small Press Bookstore/Artist-Run Space? A Cautionary Tale
A couple years ago, a poet friend asked me for advice on opening a non-profit small press bookstore and arts space. My wife, visual artist Marina Eckler, had recently opened Mountain Fold Books here in Colorado Springs. We’d been open for about two years at the time, and thriving. We had just put in a café and hired an employee. We had regular, well-attended events with amazing artists and writers both from here in town and from around the world. We managed to raise a really decent amount of money, and we managed to do it in a socially and politically conservative mid-size city that just about no one thinks of when they think of the arts. Advice being cheap, I gave it freely. Then, not six months later, and two months before the Ghost Ship fire, we closed. I’m now more qualified to give advice about closing a small press bookstore (or not opening one in the first place) and would like to offer a few thoughts for those poets and artists thinking about starting poet- or artist-run spaces.
- The fantasies are great! A brick-and-mortar space where like-minded friends can gather IRL for readings, happenings, art openings, workshops, etc. It sounds great, and it is! In fact, we were already doing it. We’d been doing a great reading series in our back yard with a couple of friends for two summers running at no cost, other than food and drinks. House readings have an intimacy that you don’t get when there’s a lectern involved. It was always potluck, the readings were fantastic, and everyone had a great time. What was wrong with that? Nothing! OK, sure, we wanted to have an art space, and wanted to be able to bring in amazing small-press art and poetry books that you’d almost never have a chance to look at in person otherwise.... Books that (we didn’t realize then) we wouldn’t have time to look at or read once we opened the store! Remember that great back yard reading series?
- Unless you’re “independently wealthy,” you probably don’t have enough money to open a small press bookstore or artist-run space, which means you’ll probably have to be a non-profit, which is almost guaranteed to be a terrible idea for a number of reasons. Sure, people will get excited at first and want to give you their tax-deductible dollars. Or maybe you’ll win some big prize to help you get started. We did. We won a $10,000 community art grant. But unless that prize is north of $100,000, you probably still won’t have nearly enough money to a) rent a space, b) build out the space properly, c) buy the inventory you’ll need/want, and d) hire people with the actual experience you’ll need and/or pay yourself enough money to make it through the harrowing first years. And so, unless you have that kind of money, most of your time (or someone’s time—in our case, a lot of my time) will be spent raising money to feed the mouth of the baby that is your new non-profit small press bookstore and/or art space. If you’re smart, and you don’t mind the prospect of a) having to constantly raise smaller amounts of money, b) having no employees, and c) never actually operating as a store or being consistently open to the public, you can probably manage a space that is open for events only where people can gather for readings, openings, etc. Except why not just do that in your back yard or your garage? Remember that great back yard reading series?
- But let’s face it: You’re going to do it anyway. We did. And because you aren’t independently wealthy and/or don’t have a spouse who makes six figures, you’re probably going to be non-profit. Maybe there’s a community foundation that will be your fiscal sponsor for a 5-10% fee on all your donations. If you’re smart, and can afford it, you should avoid this trap and hire a lawyer right away to file your 501c3 application with the IRS before you get started. Fun? Not so much. Remember that great backyard reading series?
- Whether you get a fiscal sponsor or form your own 501c3, you’re going to have to have a board of some kind. And guess who’s going to want to serve on your board? Most likely: your friends! Your well-meaning poet and artist friends who know as little, or less, than you do about serving on a board or running a non-profit. Guess who’s probably not going to want to serve on your board? People with money! They see you coming, poet/artist-type. Sure, they’ll probably give you some money in the form of a low-interest loan or a nice gift at first. It’s exciting to be part of a new arts venture, especially in a culturally starved, mid-size, middle-American city. But they know your chances of survival are about the same as any new small business: low to none. Still, they support you and your efforts in the community. So you form a board with your friends who are eager to help. They’ll help you fundraise the first time around, and will sit through some difficult meetings with Robert’s Rules close at hand. Some are very young and will have lots of ideas but no time to enact them. They’ll still have lots to say about everything—choice of chairs, the design of the logo, etcetera. Taking credit and getting thanked will quickly become a form of dark, inscrutable currency. You’ll never figure out the exchange rate. But one thing is clear: none of the board members are going to put their names on the lease or on the bank account. This was your idea, and it’s your legal liability. Remember that great back yard reading series?
- Still, your friends help. They, too, have had fantasies of opening a bookstore and/or art space, or they’re glad it now exists and glad you did it. And they want to share those fantasies about paint colors and décor, which books you should carry, who should read, and which artists you should show. They’ll help staff events, clean, and fold chairs. You have no money, so you’re grateful for all the volunteer help offered. But when it comes to the the seemingly endless barrage of other backend minutiae and myriad piles of paperwork required to lease and build out a legal space—the accounting, design, promotion, interfacing with the fiscal sponsor, working out issues of legal liability, buying insurance, talking to major donors, paying bills, calling in favors, making sure you have payroll (later), meeting with contractors, lawyers, architects, plumbers, electricians, etc.—this was your idea. Remember the back yard?
- With everyone’s help, you raise almost enough money and manage to wade through (most of) the city’s bureaucracy to put in a café so you can have a revenue stream and be open to the public on a regular basis. What you don’t raise, you’ll borrow from your own life savings. You’ll furnish the shop with as many of your own things as you can. And, finally, you obtain a business license and hire someone to keep your bookstore/arts space open full-time. You’ll pay them a living wage plus tips and creative freedom, straight out of college. It’s not lost on them that you’ve taken a significant personal financial risk to make this happen (or is it?). They see your vision (or do they?), and add theirs, bring their friends in, and have lots of great ideas about what you should and shouldn’t be doing with the space, much of which you let them do because they have initiative. Volunteers continue to help organize and promote events. Everyone is pitching in. You continue to do the invisible backend crap. You even get up at 5 a.m. to bake bread for the coffee shop every other morning. But it’s an amazing community effort and your vision has become a reality. Everyone loves the space and the events and all the exciting energy it’s bringing. Who cares about the back yard!?
- There’s only one problem: You’ll be so tired from doing all the backend, invisible work (while working your full-time job and raising your kids, if you have kids, which we do) that you no longer have the time or energy to go to the events or hang out in and enjoy the amazing space you and your friends helped create. Don’t we have a back yard?
- The employee, though originally grateful for the opportunity to be the only paid person working for the bookstore, will start to feel like you’re not managing the store enough and giving them too much freedom and/or that you’re managing it too much and not giving them enough freedom. The café and the space are great, but something’s missing—something you can barely remember now.... Oh, right! It’s you. You are missing. This amazing space that everyone in the community holds so dear is for everyone but you. You’re so exhausted and falling so far behind in the backend minutiae and fundraising and dealing with the landlord while not getting paid and working your full-time job and raising your kids that you can’t remember anything, especially why you did it in the first place. Why aren’t you ever there? You must not be doing anything. You must be sitting at home relaxing while the one employee and all the volunteers do all the work while you’re just sitting around cashing in on all the credit. You start hearing whispers. Whatever. Maybe it is time for you to step aside and let others take over. Honestly, you’re so exhausted that you don’t even care what they’re saying, and they’re probably right. You should just step aside and peacefully transfer the giant, steaming heap of horseshit you’ve been shoveling for the past two years because, honestly, you just want to be able to go to an event at the space you envisioned and enjoy it for once. There’s only one problem: No one wants to sign their name on the lease or the bank account. Remember the what?
- And then a series of problems arise like a great wave: You’re having some personal problems (in no small part due to the bookstore/art space) and need to lean on your employee and one of the friends/volunteers for a while to hold down the fort; you owe two months taxes in the same month. Your fiscal sponsor organization kicks you out with almost no warning, so you have to immediately file for your own 501c3 non-profit status or face closure. Meanwhile, another café opens around the corner and takes some of your regular business. Your friends and volunteers are feeling burnt out and under-appreciated (which they are). The two-year honeymoon is over. With the 2016 presidential election in full swing and the recent shooting at Planned Parenthood, the political climate feels perilous, and you worry about how safe your space is. You start to think: Maybe we should just close down the bookstore and go lie down in the back yard for a thousand years.
- But wait!—the poets and artists who helped you all along and loved the space rise again—they’ve decided they actually do want to take over! They want to run it now, and to shoulder the liability. Great! They want to take over all the tedious and invisible crap you’ve been doing for years now. They can do it, and they can do it better! Awesome news! Fine! Here! Have it! A generous donor steps in and offers a grant that’ll help you recover some of your personal costs and get out. Except... your friends still won’t actually sign their names on the lease or the bank account. Clearly they must understand that having the keys to a public space involves real legal liability, right? The fact that they won’t sign would seem to indicate that they actually do understand the liability. The Ghost Ship fire and the very tragic consequences of being the leaseholder on an artist-run space will be painfully apparent only two months from now, and yet they already seem to get it. It’s not to be taken lightly. You get it. You got it all along, naturally, because you had to talk to the insurance agents and the city and the lawyers—because you had to know what you were getting into in the first place when you signed your name on the lease. But... but... but you can’t legally hand it off until someone else signs. They get it, but they don’t get it. You’re just being an asshole and you won’t just hand it off and get lost. They all start openly disparaging you as though you were living in some sort of grade-school social nightmare. They avoid you, avoid your calls. What are you, 12? They just want you to hand over the space, already! Would that you’d never even done the reading series in your back yard.
- While all this is happening, the bookstore runs out of money, but the employee doesn’t tell anyone for over a month. Instead, the employee tells all your friends that you’ve been exploiting them this whole time. Wait… Your head is spinning. You have to let the employee go and close the bookstore immediately.
- But there’s one last Hail Mary. The landlord is willing to let the non-profit entity (rather than any one individual) be the leaseholder. Now, if only they can form a new board and officially form the 501c3 non-profit. You’ve already done the paper work, you just need to find (and pay) a lawyer to look it over. One of the volunteers steps in, looks over the paperwork, etc. and now he says he wants to be the Executive Director because of course he does! Great! Fine! Here! Have it! You want to help the new board, show them all the invisible work they don’t know about behind the scenes, but they seem weirdly uninterested. And then: They ambush you at the final meeting and insist you resign immediately or they won’t take over. OK? OK! Great! Fine! Here! Have it! No problem. All you ask is that they thank you for your efforts in a press release and stop disparaging you in the community where you live and for which you once wanted to create this beautiful bookstore/art space that everyone, including them, loves so dearly. You go to the bookstore, remove your personal belongings and decorations, and say goodbye to the space you founded. Perhaps you’ll be welcome in your back yard.
- A few days later, all your talented friends, who so loved the bookstore you founded that they couldn’t wait to show you the door, will send you a lawyer letter informing you that they will not, in fact, be taking over the lease or forming a new board or filing the 501c3, or thanking you, thank you very much! Was it the liability, or the realization that friendship and hard work aren’t enough to hold these things together? You’ll never know because nothing says “Let’s never speak again!” like a lawyer letter. And in the end, it was all your responsibility and your fault because it was your name on the lease and on the bank account. You accept this.
- So you sell everything, pay everyone who needs to get paid, pay the landlord to break the lease, and, in the end, still come up a few thousand dollars short. Then, a few months later, you wake up to the headline that 36 people died at Ghost Ship, an artist collective in Oakland, CA. When it’s all said and done, it won’t be the landlord, but the leaseholders, Derick Almena and Max Harris, who’ll be charged with manslaughter and face up to 39 years in prison. You’ll walk out into your back yard for the first time in months, take a deep breath, mourn the losses, and feel grateful that all you lost was friendships and money.
I’d like to say that this account is unique to Mountain Fold, but in the nearly two years since we closed, I’ve spoken to at least half a dozen other poets and artists who’ve had similar experiences with poet- and artist-run spaces. So, for all you out there who can’t help yourselves (you know who you are), here are some small points of advice:
- Get really good insurance.
- Consider being a for-profit. It doesn’t mean you’ll make any, but you can be sure who the buck (you won’t have) stops with at all times.
- Consider converting your garage into a reading/art space (and get really REALLY good insurance).
- If you’re going to be a non-profit collective, consider the way acequias work. Acequias are tried-and-true Spanish-style irrigation ditches that farmers in Southern Colorado have been using for hundreds of years and still use to water their land. Everyone has to take a turn being the mayordomo/Executive Director. If you screw someone else in the collective over, you can be sure they’ll return the favor when it’s their turn to be in charge. Behave accordingly. Set one-year terms. Anyone who isn’t willing to be in charge for at least a year and do all the insanely boring crap you have to do gets zero say in any creative decisions. And get really good insurance.
- If you’re going to have a public space, try to find a cheap place you can buy and own. Nothing like landlords to vacuum up your already limited resources. Sure, property is theft, but being a tenant leaves you constantly vulnerable.
- I’d never say don’t do business/non-profit with friends, but seriously consider the pitfalls.
- Remember the back yard, and good luck.
Poet, publisher, translator, and radio producer Noel Black was born in Tucson, Arizona and grew up in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is the author of three full length collections: Uselysses (Ugly Duckling Presse, 2012), La Goon (Furniture Press Books, 2014), and The Natural Football League (The New Heave-Ho, 2016). He translated Puerto Rican poet Mara Pastor's Llámame Láctea/Children...