Earlier this month, Chloe Eudaly of Reading Frenzy composed an open letter to the shop's supporters, informing them that the store was in a sticky situation, and could use all the help that people could muster up. We posted Chloe's letter on Blog Town, PDX, where readers left comments that ranged from "Save Reading Frenzy" to "Reading Frenzy should move to SE Portland" to "That was an awfully vague request for help." It seemed vague to us, too, so we asked Chloe what was going on, and if she had anything else she'd like to expound upon. She responded with a refreshingly frank and straightforward State of the Store email, which is reprinted here.
But first, here's Chloe's original call for support:
March 9, 2007:
We're rounding the corner on our 13th year, and while I'm not particularly superstitious, it does seem to be adding up to a rather unlucky phase in our long, illustrious history. A series of unfortunate events, both business and personal, have brought us to a critical juncture and we need your support to see us through.
As a faithful reader, I'm sure you appreciate Reading Frenzy and what we offer to our community of readers and publishers: a rare outlet for independent and alternative media, a hub of local literary activity, and a cozy space for art and literary events. Internationally recognized for our devotion to the small press and zines in particular, we've even inspired others to follow suit and open shops in their own towns.
Reading Frenzy is as much a community resource as it is a business, and as such has always depended on the generosity of volunteer staff, a team of supportive professionals who help us for free or cheap, and the occasional fundraiser. We have a couple bigger events in the works, but in the meantime here's how you can help break the spell:
• Go on a Reading Frenzy shopping spree! If all 1,000 of you spent $20 it would guarantee at least another year of business. Can't find what you want now? Buy yourself (and a few of your friends) gift certificates!
• Buy a Co-Frenzy membership for $100—you receive a 10 percent discount for one year, plus a signed/numbered Reading Frenzy/Spiral Bound print by Aaron Renier!
• Have a bright idea for a fundraiser? Bring it on! We're thinking rock show, spaghetti feed, and book sale—but not at the same time!
Thanks so much for your continued support!
Your Faithful Proprietress,
And Chloe's clarifying email to us, March 19, 2007:
Yikes! When I was lying in bed writing that little call to action I didn't imagine it would be re-posted all over the internet. It was really hard to come to the decision to write that letter and even harder to read some of the replies, even though 99 percent of them have been really positive. We've since raised a few hundred dollars and have had a lot of offers of support—venues, bands, printers, etc. We'll be planning a few fundraisers and I'll keep everyone posted over on the website.
In the meantime, I want to respond to these comments, as I think this is an interesting discussion. First the facts (and a little opinion here and there):
(1) Books and magazines have a low profit margin that you have to make up for through sidelines, used books, and/or sheer volume. It's a tough time to be an independent bookseller. I started a small press a couple years ago. Right now we're just putting out Crap Hound. The press has subsidized the store and is our biggest creditor.
(2) I started Reading Frenzy in 1994 with $4,000. That's about $46,000 less than most people think you need to launch a small bookstore. It's been a constant struggle to slowly grow the store and the cash flow has always been clunky. This leads to periods such as the one we're in now—not enough money to buy enough inventory to sell to make enough money to pay off vendors in order to buy more inventory (repeat ad infinitum).
(3) Reading Frenzy was thrust into a precarious financial position in 1999 when we lost our lease for about six months and only got it back after agreeing to a 50 percent rent increase that we have never been able to make up for. To give you an idea of the impact—we needed to increase sales by $9,000 per year to cover the additional rent, instead we began to accumulate debt.
(4) Our current landlords (Inner City Properties) are fantastic and you largely have them to thank for our awesome block (Rocco's and The Future have a different landlord). They're committed to local, small businesses and fostering community in their buildings. They have been supportive and generous to a fault. They have not raised our rent in several years, but a considerable increase is on the way with our next renewal. This is perfectly reasonable. They've invested a lot of money in restoration and improvements, the property has appreciated and the costs associated with the building have gone up. They don't want us to go—just to be able to pay the rent.
(5) Reading Frenzy has always depended on a certain amount of volunteer support. Lots of worthwhile endeavors cannot support themselves through sales revenue alone. If people weren't willing to subsidize such ventures through patronage and elbow grease our cultural landscape would be in a much sorrier state of affairs. However, if the public support isn't there, then yes, clearly it is time to regroup or move on.
(6) In 2005 I began receiving business counseling through SBDC [Small Business Development Center]. I was amazed to find out that after years of feeling like a failure that I had actually accomplished a lot and that I had a viable business—given the proper amount of capital. With the help of Jackie [of the SBDC] I was able to qualify for a small loan that led to a brief (6 month) upsurge in inventory and sales. Unfortunately, it was only about a third of what we actually needed to make a real go of it and I had to pay half of it back in a balloon payment after five months.
Now for the personal stuff, which I'm not entirely comfortable with sharing, but will to the extent that it has a direct bearing on my current situation.
(1) I became a parent six years ago (this Saturday). I have an adorable kid who happens to have a severe disability and multiple health issues. I went from working 40-60 hours per week, to 20 if I'm lucky. I have never been able to resume my post behind the counter, as my schedule is at the mercy of my kid's healthcare needs. This means my payroll expenses have gone way up and the business has suffered from my relative absence.
(2.) Last year I took on a second job managing a program for a local nonprofit as I could no longer live on the meager wages I could afford to pay myself. I am now a volunteer at my own store! It's been a challenge to balance all my responsibilities.
(3.) I have been able to live on a very modest income all these years, due in large part to a stable, affordable housing situation. That situation ended in January after 18 years! Wow! The rental market has changed a lot since the '80s! Ouch!
Now for my responses to the feedback on the blog:
(1.) I don't want to move, don't have money to move, and don't think we would fare better elsewhere. Despite the upward trend all around us, the central location, our immediate neighbors and Powell's make this one of the best spots in the city. That said, I would love to open a more general bookstore in North/Northeast. P.S. Rents are not necessarily cheaper in Eastside shopping districts and we can't start over in a dead zone.
(2) I'm not "asking" for $20,000. I was just providing an example of how a relatively small action on the part of our customers (spending $20) could ensure our survival without any additional efforts, such as fundraisers.
(3) The personal stuff, is personal. I don't want to be seen as a charity case, but I do want people to know that I've experienced extenuating circumstances and really done all I can do on my own. If they want to see Reading Frenzy continue, a lot of people are going to have to put their money where their mouth is. At this point, I almost can't stand hearing how great everyone thinks it is—that and 50 cents won't even get me a cup of coffee! But really, keep the love coming, it does help.
(4) I'm not sure what to say to Mikey Golightly's comment. Anyone who's familiar with the store knows that while we do have a specialty—independent/alternative press—we cater to a diverse range of customers. Crusty punks, feminists, queers, perverts, arts and craftsers, graffiti artists, DJs, comic geeks, creative professionals, librarians, kids, senior citizens, and celebrities. Take a look at our event history and you will see that diversity reflected there as well. Reading Frenzy did and does fill a void. It's easy to take this for granted after so many years. I am only reminded of it when I actually leave town and see for myself how scarce the outlets for independent and alternative media are. This is absolutely a capital/cash flow problem—not a lack of purpose, vision, or customers.
(5) Carissa has a great idea in selling used books and it's one I've pondered, but the logistics are challenging (a) we don't (usually) have a lot of room to spare and (b) the buying hours would have to be pretty limited if not downright sporadic. This is something worth pursuing and we do have a book sale/fundraiser on our to do list.
Sheesk! I think I've finally run out of steam. Thanks for your support!