Closing the Book 

Grim Finances Imperil Portland's Political Booksellers

IN OTHER WORDS, the last surviving nonprofit feminist bookstore in the United States (located right here in Portland, Oregon), almost died this month.

"This is the most extreme situation we've ever been in," says Katie Carter, program director for the NE Killingsworth store that has been a pillar in Portland's feminist community for 15 years. In recent months, several of Portland's political print media outlets, both large and small, have suddenly threatened closure. To survive, some are rethinking their business models while others are hoping their loyal communities can pull them through the financial meltdown.

In Other Words routinely borrows money to buy books, paying off the loans after the books sell. But from June to December this year, sales were $16,000 less than those same months in 2007, leaving the store to fill a steep difference before the end of this year. After announcing a desperate call for help at the beginning of December, donations flooded into the little store—over $13,000 in less than two weeks, which is enough to keep the community bookstore's doors open for now.

But the crisis made In Other Word's board of directors realize their old model wasn't going to cut it in this dire financial climate. "We're focusing on operating better as a nonprofit," says Carter. "Donations have to be a big part of our income—we obviously can't make it just as a bookstore."

In Other Word's situation sounded familiar to Portland feminists—locally based national feminist magazine Bitch fell into a similar money pit in September. Donors pitched in $40,000 in just a few days to keep the magazine afloat.

"It's a sign that people definitely see our work as still relevant and powerful," says Bitch Publisher Debbie Rasmussen from a sofa in the magazine's NE Alberta office. Bitch is refocusing its model on functioning more like a nonprofit than a newsstand magazine.

"Fundraising should be in every part of our work," explains Rasmussen, as employees in the next room film a video of animated bees asking readers to become donors. "Any time an organization takes the high road of forgoing rich parent companies, it's going to be difficult... we have to constantly be reminding people that their support is crucial to our existence."

Smaller print media outlets in town are teetering on the brink of closure, too. Blackrose Collective, a bookstore and anarchist community space on N Mississippi, said in November that it's in danger of not making rent during the winter months. Laughing Horse Books, on NE 10th, has been touch and go financially for a while.

"We have certainly been hurting," says Dominic, a Laughing Horse volunteer and "people servant" who preferred to keep his last name out of print and said the collective store has cut two paid positions.

"We're just going to keep trying to brainstorm and organize events," says Dominic.

In the last three years, rising rent pushed both In Other Words and Laughing Horse out of their previous storefronts on SE Hawthorne and SE Division, respectively. The new locations have less foot traffic, but their doors are determined to stay open.

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