On Being a Cooperative

Why is Buffalo Street Books a Cooperative?


BSB used to be privately owned, but in 2011 the owner announced the closing of the store. One of the employees had the idea of organizing a community buy-out to keep the store open, and a cooperative was incorporated to sell shares and raise the capital to purchase the store. So Buffalo Street Books is a cooperative as an economic solution to the difficulty of running an independent bookstore in the shadow of Amazon. 

A consumer-owned cooperative (which is distinct from a worker-owned cooperative) is an autonomous association of consumers united voluntary to meet their common economic, social and cultural needs and aspirations through a jointly-owned and democratically-controlled enterprise. So the purpose of Buffalo Street Books is not to generate profit for its shareholders, as in a corporation. We exist to meet the literary needs of our owners and other consumers, and this allows us to define our mission in social justice terms. 

Is Buffalo Street Books unusual in the bookselling industry?

Yes, but the number of cooperative bookstores is growing. Check out this list of worker- and consumer-owned bookstores, ranging in age from 75 years old to brand new.

Can anyone join?

Yes, anyone can join the coop at any time. Our ownership rolls are always open. Here’s how to join or how to gift an owner share.

Do I need to be an owner to shop at the store?

No. Just like a food coop, BSB is open to all shoppers. We welcome everyone within our doors and consider our store a safe space, a home for all things literary, and a welcome haven for all ages and identities.

What benefits do I get as an owner?

Well, bragging rights, for one. Tell everyone you know that you own a bookstore! Owners govern the cooperative by voting in annual elections for Executive Board members and the occasional referendum. They are invited to attend the Annual Meeting. They receive a monthly newsletter with news of the store and the world of books. Owners are invited to sales, usually two per year, and other special events, including an annual holiday party. And owners have the right to patronage dividends at the end of a profitable fiscal year.

What benefits does the store get from my purchase of an owner share? 

The store receives capital for its daily operations. The bookselling industry runs on extremely tight profit margins. The industry average annual profit for a bookstore our size is a mere 1.6%. Buffalo Street Books is proud to pay its staff the Tompkins County Living Wage, but this means the money to help run the store must come from beyond book sales. Owner shares help keep the cooperative running so that we can order new titles, host events and workshops, and contribute books, time, and programming to our community. 

And with each new owner, we gain one more book lover who can be a resource for our entire community—another creative mind to help oversee the direction of the store and add ideas to the ongoing conversations about books, literacy, and bookselling. 

Do owners get discounts on books? 

Owners are invited to special sales, usually two per year. For sales that are open to everyone, owners receive a higher discount than non-owners. We do not offer a year-round discount for every purchase that an owner makes, because in this cutthroat industry, it is not sustainable to give away our profits before we even earn them. 

I am already an owner. How else can I support the bookstore?

Great question! We define support very capaciously. There are many ways to contribute to the bookstore’s financial sustainability. You can support us by using our store and website as your first resource for all things book-related. Replace Amazon in your web browser with this website to search for books. Link to our website instead of Amazon on your own website and in social media posts. 

When you need to buy a gift, consider a book and a box of stationery, or a gift card, or an ownership, or a donation in your recipient’s name. Take a class; teach a class; convince a friend with a hidden talent to teach a class. Nominate someone for the Executive Board. Propose an event. Plan an afternoon date browsing in the store and getting to know someone through books. Recommend a book on Instagram with a photo taken in our store. 

I can’t afford an ownership share but I want to support the bookstore.

We hear you. You might consider purchasing a share in ten monthly installments. You might also inquire whether there is money in our Ownership Fund, which is always open for donations. But please know that we are grateful for all our customers, whether or not you are willing or able to become an owner. We know BSB is one good cause among many in this town, and we look forward to seeing you in the store. (Also, see above! Support comes in many forms.)

Do owners have a say in what books the coop sells?

Not directly, but our community influences the inventory in a number of ways. The General Manager is the book buyer who meets with publishers’ sales reps and makes choices about what books to have in stock. Our staff each have a shelf of their recommendations. Our Ithaca is Books ambassadors have a shelf of the books that have shaped them as readers. We have community partnerships with organizations in town that sponsor a shelf of books they’d like to recommend to the community. And we have bookmarks which anyone who shops in the store can fill out and place in a book on the shelf to recommend it to other readers. 

Is financial information about the bookstore public?

Financial information is open to owners of the cooperative. The Executive Board gives a financial report to the ownership once a year at our Annual Meeting. 

How is the bookstore governed?

The cooperative is governed by its By-Laws, which state that the ownership elects the nine-member Executive Board. Board members serve staggered three-year terms. The Board then elects officers: president, vice-president, treasurer, and secretary. The Board meets monthly with the General Manager to review finances and plan various initiatives; these meetings are open to the ownership so please email executiveboard@buffalostreetbooks.com for the day and time. The Board periodically sends updates to the ownership via newsletter and holds an Annual Meeting open to all owners at which they report on finances and the general health of the store. 

How do I become an Executive Board member?

Be on the lookout for when the Board announces its next vacancy, which usually happens once a year in the summer. And feel free to put yourself forward to the Board in the meantime, and we will keep your name on a list for when the next vacancy occurs. All owners are welcome to run for the Board, and all that is required is a short bio for the ballot. In recent years, the Board has waived the requirement that a candidate must be an owner to run, so that we can increase the scope and diversity of our Board and our ownership.

Is Buffalo Street Books a nonprofit?

Buffalo Street Books is a C corporation and is not a nonprofit, but because it is a cooperative, it shares characteristics of both. Like a for-profit business, the cooperative raises capital by selling shares and returning a dividend to shareholders when it earns a profit. Like a nonprofit, our cooperative is a values-driven organization which reports regularly to its owners on its progress in advancing its mission as well as its financial stability. 

I have a suggestion or comment or question or compliment. Whom do I contact?

If your question is about the cooperative, please contact executiveboard@buffalostreetbooks.com. For questions about a book order, contact info@buffalostreetbooks.com. For questions about community partnerships, contact Lisa Swayze, General Manager, at lisa@buffalostreetbooks.com. For questions about events and all other inquiries, please use our contact form and someone will get back to you very shortly. Thank you!