Relief for booksellers in need

Reposted from Melville House. Written by Dustin Kurtz.

In the aftermath of disasters like Hurricane Sandy, it’s easy and common for the parts of the internet which we and our readers frequent to make much of the loss of books. We’re raised from a very young age to think of books as sacred, their preservation a desperate cause. When books are destroyed, the reaction is akin to mourning. Witness the outcry over books destroyed at Printed Matter or powerHouse Arena here in New York City this past week, or Bartleby’s Books in Vermont (a store dear to our heart for obvious reasons) during Tropical Storm Irene last year. See also the enormous popularity of our recent post about how to salvage water-damaged books.

I wouldn’t call that reaction misplaced, but I think it does tend to steal attention from other dire effects of natural disasters, and that is on the booksellers themselves. For stores along the entire Eastern seaboard, this has been a week of diminished or no sales. Stores in downtown Manhattan like Three Lives, McNally Jackson or the Mysterious Bookshop only regained power on Saturday. The fantastic Wachtung Booksellers in New Jersey is still without. In almost every case, this will mean a period without pay for the booksellers that make those stores what they are. Bookselling in this country is an underpaid profession, one with no opportunity to build personal or institutional safety nets. For booksellers, like much of the modern service industry, the loss of a week’s pay can trigger a disastrous spiral.

I thought it appropriate then, in the wake of Sandy, to take a moment to highlight one foundation that is working to help booksellers when disasters, wet and windy or otherwise, make lives difficult. The Book Industry Charitable Foundation offers small grants specifically for booksellers, meant chiefly to “stabilize the household finances so that an emergency situation does not overwhelm the household and spiral into a more extreme financial need” according to executive director Pamela French. Since early October, BINC has begun partnering with the American Booksellers Association to offer aid to their member stores. I spoke with Alison Foreman of the Foundation last week about her organization and it’s role in cases like the wake of Sandy.

DK: The foundation was started by Borders employees and founders back in 1995. Was it meant from the start to be open to booksellers everywhere, or was it envisioned as a Borders-specific endeavor?

Alison Foreman: The Borders Foundation was started in 1996 by a group of Borders employees at the corporate office when a store manager on the West coast reach out to them on behalf of their employee who was experiencing an extreme financial hardship as a result of a loss of household income due to divorce/separation. That very first grant was $323 and made a big difference for the bookstore employee and their family.

Following the first grant a group of dedicated volunteers formed a committee to facilitate the processing of filing the paperwork to have the Borders Group Foundation recognized by the state of Michigan and nationally as a 501(c)3 charitable organization. The idea or notion was that the Foundation would operate as a way for employees to reach out and help each other and be the heart of Borders. Over the fifteen years that BGF operated many employees gave to the organization and received support from the Foundation either via the financial assistance program, scholarship, financial education or bereavement outreach.

The Borders Group Foundation was created to be an organization dedicated to Borders employee helping Borders employee. The original mission did not focus outside of the Borders organization. However, when Borders went into liquidation the board of the Foundation began the process to review the long term strategic options of what might be next for the charity. What came out of the research and strategic planning with the help of another industry charity named the Two Ten Foundation (shoe industry charity) was that the board and many of our supporters wanted the Foundation to continue, but with an expanded mission. The vision was to expand and offer our programs to help all booksellers in the industry as the Book Industry Charitable Foundation.

DK: Do the majority of your donations come from booksellers, whether individual or companies, or are publishers involved as well?

AF: Originally, as BGF, the majority of donations came from Borders employees with a company match of 50 cents to the dollar (up until 2009). Additionally, over the years we have received donations from publishers and other vendors connected to the industry.

Now, as the Binc Foundation we receive donations from many Borders alumni, support from vendors and from partners like the ABA. We are just beginning to received donations from book industry employees.

Our goal in the coming year is to gain further support from the industry through awareness and having booksellers get involved with us through volunteerism. We would love to have booksellers and publishers volunteer as an ambassador for Binc, serve on a committee and possibly even add a few new board members to our organization. And through expanding our volunteers and improving awareness we hope to increase donations as booksellers see us in action.

DK: Perhaps the most pertinent question—do you tend to see an upswing in requests for assistance after events like Sandy this year or Irene last? Or is it most often a result of everyday individual disasters?

AF: You are correct we generally see an upswing in requests and inquiries when events like Sandy occur. Not only do we receive requests for emergency hardship support but we also receive requests from booksellers after the event has occurred. Some booksellers may find their household needs help in the aftermath with repairs or with essential household expenses (like rent or mortgage) if a family member was unable to work for an extended period due to the disaster and that results in extreme financial hardship or burden.

Booksellers under financial hardship, whether because of lost wages in the aftermath of the hurricane or for disasters of a more personal scale, are urged to contact the foundation here.

Dustin Kurtz is a marketing manager at Melville House, a former bookseller for McNally Jackson and, too often, a wiseacre.

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