May 11, 2015

From The Office

by Alan Beatts

This month marks the first time since January that I feel like the basic operations of the business are back to normal.  Or at least our idea of normal, which I suspect is pretty strange by objective standards.  The store inventory is back up to snuff with the exception of our used paperback section.  With the addition of our newest hire in the cafe, who starts this week, staffing is up to a proper level (i.e. you shouldn't see me doing dishes at closing time).  I feel like the sponsor program is off to a good start and Scott Cox is working with me on that, allowing me to turn my attention to some other things.  Overall, I'm feeling very good about the position that Borderlands is in for 2015 -- almost entirely thanks to our sponsors.

Speaking of which, I'm delighted to announce that as of this week we've hit 800 sponsors for 2015, a full 500 over the number that we needed to remain open.  This is huge, heartwarming and amazing for a variety of reasons, which are all self-evident.

What is not so evident is the major change in my attitude and my plans for the store that have been caused by the unexpected and unbelievable amount of support we've received from our customers and our industry.

A few people have asked me (and I'm sure that more than a few have wondered) what we're going to do with the income beyond requirements that we've received this year.  One of the first things that I did was give all of our employees a bonus - and man, did they deserve it after February!  I also raised their pay a month sooner than required, proportionally based on the minimum wage increase that started this month.

My next step will be to invest in some needed infrastructure improvements.  There are a lot of "deferred maintenance" items around here that were not addressed because I figured we just needed to hold on until the end of March.  Obviously we now need to fix, upgrade, and/or replace all of those things.  There are also elements to the business that aren't broken, but that I want to improve -- a perfect example is putting a solution in place to make audio and, perhaps, video recordings of author events.  Ideally we'll be able to live-stream all of our events eventually, but for now it would be nice just to get them recorded.

Another item is to get back to working on some remodeling that was interrupted by our now-thwarted impending closing.  That should eventually lead to more retail space, specifically for used books.  Those improvements and others are on a substantial list that I'm working on.

But all the foregoing are small matters, really.  They don't really convey how my outlook and goals for Borderlands have changed.

The most major thing that has been the result of the incredible outpouring of support we received is this: I've always thought of Borderlands as a personal project, and assumed that it would end when I was tired of it, incapable of running it or I died.  The dramatic reaction to the sponsor program and the conviction on the part of many people that Borderlands is an institution has made me rethink that assumption.  I now believe that, if possible, I need to try to create a way for Borderlands to outlast me.

I almost feel like I have a duty to our sponsors, our industry, our customers, and our community to try achieving that.

There are many pieces to that job, but I deeply believe that the most important and most difficult piece is to ensure a permanent home for the store.  Regardless of the geographic area, lease expirations and increased rents are one of the most common reasons for the closure of established, stable businesses.  In a city like San Francisco, with its constant cycle between boom-town and bust, that is even more true.  Right now our leases are in good shape and we have excellent relations with our landlord. But that is not something to count on ten, twenty or fifty years from now.  With the success of the sponsorship program, that is the time-scale I'm looking at -- 50 years.

And so my long-term project now is to create a non-profit organization that will allow us to buy a building.  We have some exceptional creative and business minds working on this - an attorney (who is a sponsor) volunteered to assist with the legal nitty-gritty of setting up the non-profit, I've received excellent advice from sponsors who, collectively, have decades of nonprofit experience, and we have the funds necessary to establish the entity (thanks to the support we've received).  Assuming we continue to get the support we've seen this year, we will be able to continue to accumulate funds for this project over the coming years.  We also have some interesting ideas about how we can raise funds for such a project.  This idea is a long-game and so progress will be slow to start, but you can expect to hear more about it over the coming months and years.

In a small way, Borderlands has always been something extraordinary -- but what we have created with the sponsor program is truly something unique.  The plans I've discussed here seem grandiose, even to me, but, had someone described what we've done in three months, I would have thought that equally grandiose and unlikely.  Together we've managed one remarkable, unprecedented feat.  The second one should be easier, since now we've had a chance to practice.

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