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Were it not for this debt, we would be doing fine': How the feds almost bankrupted a progressive college town workers' collective bookstore


When socialism and capitalism collided.

For anyone who has ever traveled through a northeastern college town, downtown Amherst Massachusetts perhaps typifies it more than any other, its quaint New England streets dotted with bars, coffee shops, pizza parlors and small independent bookstores whose window fronts brim with titles like Marx's "Das Kapital" and Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States."

Ironically, as reported in an article in a local Western Massachusetts newspaper, The Republican, one such progressive Amherst bookstore, "Food for Thought," has fallen on hard times due to a federal law designed to help students acquire cheaper textbooks.

"Food For Thought" met their 2013 fundraising goal of $38,000, raising $40,573, allowing the not-for-profit workers' collective to survive into 2014. The bookstore, closed since December 25th will re-open on January 15th following downsizing renovations. (Image Source: Diane Lederman / The Republican)

"Food for Thought" which describes itself as "a not-for-profit, workers' collective bookstore" featuring "a wide array of radical & progressive media: all manner of nourishment for the heart & mind," has experienced massive revenue declines in recent years in large part due to a provision of the federal "Higher Education Opportunity Act."

Section 133(d)(1) of the law mandates that schools receiving federal assistance disclose "the International Standard Book Number and retail price information" associated with all required and recommended course textbooks in the institutions' online course schedule. The textbook provision was written "to ensure that students have access to affordable course materials by decreasing costs to students and enhancing transparency and disclosure with respect to the selection, purchase, sale, and use of course materials."

For independent bookstores like "Food For Thought" that were reliant on textbook revenue to subsidize the rest of their business, the law proved catastrophic, as students armed with an ISBN have been able to price compare textbooks online, mitigating the need to patronize their local, often more expensive college town bookstore. As a result, "Food For Thought" was forced to discontinue textbook sales this past summer, sales which had accounted for 70-75% of all revenue.

Now in its 38th year, the bookstore sent out a fundraising letter in the fall of 2013 pleading for $38,000 in financial assistance ($1,000 for each year of their existence plus $1,000 for 2014), noting that "The main problem is the financial debt incurred by the massive drop in textbook sales over the past couple years - a legacy we are still trying to leave behind. Were it not for this debt, we would be doing fine..."

(Image Source: Yelp)

Rather than close up shop, those managing the bookstore argued that its value proposition still held:

"We think Food For Thought Books is worth it. And we think that the [Pioneer] Valley still needs Food For Thought Books. There is no other place like it, and no other place that offers what it offers. Where is there another community space like ours? Another public queer space? Another radical space?"

As reported in The Republican, the bookstore reported that their campaign proved successful, raising $40,573. Like any business, the progressive book purveyors have opted to survive by living within their means, using such funds to downsize their space to "sustain itself with this new size and rental cost."

As a result of the recent voluntary infusion of funds, the collective will now be able to continue its mission:

"...to serve the Amherst community and the greater Pioneer Valley as it always has - as a bookstore full of books you can't find anywhere else, as a community center for all manner of social justice and progressive communities, and as a safe space for those for who much of the world is still not a safe space."

So there you have it: a socialist not-for-profit bookstore on the brink of bankruptcy due to market competition created by a federal textbook law impacting all schools receiving federal assistance survived through an emergency voluntary investment.

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