Two weeks ago, a local institution — Buffalo Street Books — announced that it was closing. One week ago, a phoenix started to stir from these ashes. Next week? Who knows — that will be up to us in the community.
Before the Internet and big-box stores (like Borders, which is also closing this spring), Ithaca had a number of independent, local bookstores. It was a part of what defined college towns like ours: local community-building businesses centered on the printed word.
My first draft of this commentary — before the phoenix started stirring — was a story of loss, remembering the ways that Buffalo Street Books added to our lives. I gave a book reading there when I was, at long last, published, and I heard nationally syndicated columnist Amy Dickinson reading from her bestseller there. When the last Harry Potter book came out, my children dressed as Hermione and Harry and stayed up past midnight, enjoying a crowded bookstore party until (finally!) the boxes could be opened and we could find out how Rowling would end the tale. Over the years, Buffalo Street Books has served as a place for conversations, book browsing and recommendations from its owner, Gary Weissbrot. A local business is one you get to know, one where you become a regular.
In the first draft, I also pointed out the stark realities facing booksellers in small markets like ours today, making a closing like this a familiar story: recession, competition, new electronic platforms for reading and the big one — the growth of Internet purchasing as a new American way of life.
When we buy, we tend to go for the lowest prices, but we rarely count social costs: how interacting with a screen is atomizing while walking into a local shop starts the conversations and makes the connections that help us to become more a part of the community, how keeping our purchasing dollars in town adds to our local economy, while sending them to huge Internet companies enriches the few and far away.
But hold on. Since I wrote that first draft of this commentary, a new and hopeful story about Ithaca and Buffalo Street Books has emerged.
Last week, a local Ithacan put out a call for pledges to buy out the bookshop and turn it into a cooperative. This call hasn’t just received support; it has been met with a stampede. Setting a goal of $200,000, the community pledged more than $110,000 in the first two days. It seems that Ithaca isn’t ready to give up on its independent bookshop.
Ithaca College should buy shares to help support this local institution that enriches the community and makes Ithaca more attractive to prospective faculty. Here is a moment when the college can matter to the local community. Faculty and staff might want to consider investing as well. If this effort succeeds, students might become volunteer-workers, discovering how a cooperative works here in our own community.
In the coming weeks, I recommend stopping by Buffalo Street Books, to thank Gary for fighting the good fight all these years. While you’re there, you might want to look into the plan to create an innovative, community-owned bookshop. That’s real value.
Michael Trotti is an associate professor of history. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.