When I see an independent bookstore with its doors still open, I fight an urge to run in and make a purchase. I only stop myself to keep the peace at home, where piles of books threaten to topple the serenity of my partner, with whom I share a small space. My impulse is driven by both a love of books and a desire to help bookstores pay their rent.
In early 2015, Borderlands Books, an independent bookstore in the Mission District, announced its imminent closure due to financial pressures associated with the city's minimum wage increase. By March of last year, the store — which sells science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and horror books — had developed a plan for staying open through March 2016.
March has come and gone, yet the shop is still there. What kind of magic took hold in the Mission to make such a thing possible?
Borderlands is particularly appealing. The windows are framed by curtains dark enough to let a vampire sleep through dawn, the floors creak even when there's no one behind you, and the shelves are, of course, lined with portals to a million worlds. Ravens, gargoyles, and hairless cats perch near the register. The adjacent cafe offers standard fare, but the postcard racks, art, and Victorian decor lend a bit of the bookstore's air to the venue. That might really be a galaxy swirling on the surface of your coffee.
The cost of rent is a stressor for all small businesses trying to stay afloat in the Bay Area. When a lease ends, the rent jumps, often beyond the means of businesses that make a small profit. In 2015, the city's minimum wage increase added new pressures to the mix. It will rise incrementally each year until it reaches $15 in 2018.
Borderlands owner Alan Beatts says that without a creative approach, it would have been impossible to keep Borderlands open.
The way the wage increase was rolled out also diminishes San Francisco, in his assessment, because it favors large retailers.
"The impact of minimum wage is profound on small local business," he says. "There was, as far as I was able to determine, no consideration for how the impact on small business could be ameliorated."
Why struggle for art, for things that aren't practical or required? Why sell fantasy or comics when all around you the world is screaming money and tech, or eviction, disease, and war?
Brian Hibbs, owner and proprietor of Comix Experience on Divisadero Street, had an answer for National Review in 2015. "Without stores like mine, without stores like Borderlands," he said, "this city would be a poorer place. We're selling art, commodities, people's dreams. To have fewer places to have those things on sale, I think, diminishes San Francisco."
An international community rallied behind Borderlands when its announced plans to close in 2015. Support came from bookstore customers, professionals working in the field internationally, cafe customers, and neighbors. The goal was to have 300 sponsors per year paying $100 each to support the store. They met their goal in two days, with sponsors not just from San Francisco, but from Canada, the U.K., Ireland, the Netherlands, and beyond.
When I spoke with Jude Feldman, Borderlands' store manager, in mid-March, she told me that when they started the sponsorship program the idea was to see if it was sustainable, and that they have surpassed the goal they set for themselves. Borderlands continues to thrive today. According to Beatts, Borderlands is the second-largest English-language store in their specialty. They receive orders online from as far away as Hong Kong, Malaysia, and Afghanistan.
Their lease will expire in five years, and when it does they expect they won't be able to afford it, though sponsors above the minimum threshold have allowed them to stay in business and create a cushion. They would love to stay in the Mission, but are not sure it will be possible. Believing it might be possible seems to be part of the magic. That belief seems to open doors we never knew were there.
There's a lesson in this for all writers and artists. Inner and outer bullies might laugh that some of us dream and write of dragons; we may have to share small spaces to make ends meet; elves and muses might go into hiding when dollar signs try to attach themselves to the creative process. Thanks to dreamers and fighters, though, we have a city that includes both Borderlands and the increased minimum wage.