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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Keeping It Local

The ‘people’ behind People’s Books Cooperative

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There’s no denying it: We live in a world ruled by huge multinational corporations increasingly estranged from their places of origin. Perhaps the best any of us can hope for is that they outpace even themselves and eventually run out of steam.

Luckily, Milwaukee is home to a growing number of enterprises taking a more active stance, seeking egalitarian alternatives to the corporate model in a bid to give community building more important role than investment seeking. Among them is People’s Books Cooperative, an independent bookstore that marks its first anniversary as a cooperative enterprise on Sept. 1.

Perhaps Chris Chiu, when choosing a name for the bookstore more than three decades ago, had an inkling that it would one day be run by the people, for the people. After singlehandedly running the shop for all those years, Chiu decided to close—and perhaps sell—the business a couple of years ago. Yet when UW-Madison graduate Brian Rothgery first approached him with the idea of turning it into a co-op, Chiu was a little wary. And with good reason: Keeping a bookstore afloat is a challenge to say the least, and running a co-op is especially difficult during tough economic times.

Rallying the Community

Nevertheless, early in 2007 Chiu gave Rothgery the go-ahead to assemble a business plan for the bookstore’s transition to a cooperative structure. Jim Draeger was appointed the task of rallying community support, and after months of discussion, the articles of incorporation, mission statements and bylaws were ironed out and the store and its assets were sold to a 150-member cooperative. Each year the co-op members select a committee of board members to oversee store operations.

Sitting in on one of the board’s biweekly meetings almost one year later and watching the democratic decision-making process at work, it’s hard to believe Draeger when he describes some of the teething problems the co-op experienced initially.

“One major problem early on was disagreement among board members over the direction of the store,” he says. “It was difficult to get everyone to agree on the same issues.”

Fellow board member John Donat adds: “Some people wanted to transform it into more of a fair-trade store while others wanted to branch out into children’s books and romance novels.”

After much deliberation, the board agreed on turning the People’s Books into a member cooperative that raises capital by selling membership at $20 a year and $100 for a lifetime. In turn, members become owners and receive one vote apiece.

Nonetheless, vestiges of some of those early ideas remain. Apart from being given a modest makeover that includes a new awning, a more inviting window display and generously spaced aisles, the bookstore expanded its selection of children’s books with a cozy reading nook located nearby. Each month a newsletter is issued to members and posted on the co-op’s Web site, describing new books the store has in stock and informing the public of upcoming events. At the same time, it remains the small and local gem it has always been, offering a selection of progressive publications you’ll be hard-pressed to find elsewhere.

The store has also found a viable means of addressing the pressing need to increase sales and revenue.

“We decided the most surefire way of doing that was to get exclusive agreements with instructional staff at UW-Milwaukee to order their textbooks through us,” says Rothgery, who attributes the idea to Rainbow Books Cooperative in Madison. The move seems to be paying off: The store currently provides textbooks for more than 30 UWM classes.

Branching Out

“There is a sense of urgency in Milwaukee among people who think locally to preserve these kinds of community institutions and create new ones,” says Rothgery. He and other board members readily admit that without the community’s support and a pool of committed volunteers to staff the counter, pass out flyers and table events, the store wouldn’t be able to make ends meet.

Thus, one of the co-op’s goals is to return the support it has received from both the community and other enterprises such as the Riverwest Cooperative (which, according to Draeger, is the first local co-op to which People’s Books Cooperative turned for advice and help). The store gives back to the community by hosting readings and movie nights and allowing local groups such as Milwaukee’s Network for Social Change to use the store for meetings and classes.

It also forges links with other independent bookstores through events such as the “Independent Bookstore Potluck” it hosted last week. Mike Gonzales, who’s in charge of coordinating events, cites this as one of the defining principles of the cooperative model: to create sustainable communities. Like many other people, he’s concerned about economic trends that make it harder and harder for small independent bookstores to compete against corporate behemoths.

“We want to work with other bookstores and anyone else who is concerned about this trend, to stand in solidarity with each other,” says Gonzales. “In many ways independent bookstores operate as a labor of love despite continued loss of revenue and mounting debts. We don’t believe that we should face these problems alone.”

Let’s hope People’s Books Cooperative—a small and local alternative to the crushing corporate structure—is around for many years to come.

For information on how you can become a member or volunteer, for information on events or for a copy of the store’s monthly newsletter, go to www.peoplesbookscoop.org or call (414) 962-0575.