How Your Bookstore's Charitable Giving Can Be Mutually Beneficial

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This past January, Greenlight Bookstore in Brooklyn, New York, released its first-ever Giving Report, which itemized monetary and other donations to local charities and nonprofits during 2018. A version of the report can be read here.

Greenlight Bookstore, a small business run on a for-profit model, wrote in its report, “book sales pay the rent, inventory costs, staff salaries, taxes...but like many independent bookstores and other small businesses nationwide, Greenlight also gives to its community in significant ways. Many donations are financial, supporting schools, nonprofits, and causes, and others are gifts of our expertise and resources to get books into the hands of those who need them most.”

In 2018, Greenlight donated a total of $23,704.07, in addition to 4,306 books.

Owners Jessica Stockton Bagnulo and Rebecca Fitting said they were partly inspired to track their yearly giving by the work Point Reyes Books in Point Reyes Station, California, does in “shouting” its giving, and partly by conversations they were having about how Greenlight fits into its community.

“We thought it would be worthwhile to try to add up all the ways the bookstore gives back in a given year and share that with customers who might not be aware of the scope of it,” Bagnulo said. “It’s also a way to point out how much independent and locally owned stores in general contribute to their communities, and reinforce our message of the value of shopping local.”

“We wanted to do a study of our giving because we think about it over the course of the year,” Fitting added, “but it’s hard to see it all in one place. With the complexity of the world and of New York City and Brooklyn these days, we wanted to check in with ourselves to make sure we felt we were doing enough.”

Nonprofit work and charitable giving are a crucial aspect of Greenlight’s mission as an independent bookstore because “nearly all of us do this for reasons other than just making a living,” Bagnulo said, “and giving back to the community is part of the motivation for a lot of what we do.”

“Jessica or I can have an impact as individuals,” Fitting added, “but together and through the store, we can have a much louder voice, and with hope, the store’s actions can encourage or motivate individual acts as well.”

Fitting and Bagnulo said their favorite program to work with is Gift an Author Visit, which partners with local schools in the Prospect Lefferts Gardens area to provide books to children who might not otherwise have access to books or author experiences on their own. “It may sound cheesy, but I think of it as growing future readers, and that feels like an important part of our mission as booksellers,” said Fitting, who worked out a system with local authors and school administrators to make the program work.

“Some researchers we spoke to once described Greenlight as having a ‘double bottom line,’” Bagnulo said. “Some things we do for the income, and some things we do for the mission. We do have to balance things both financially and in terms of our time and resources, but it does help to build the store’s reputation.”

To be most efficient, Fitting and Bagnulo recommended that booksellers looking to incorporate nonprofit work into their store model develop systems for handling donations, book drives, and other programs they intend to become involved with, in addition to spreading work evenly among staff members. And while it’s unrealistic for booksellers to say yes to every organization that reaches out for a partnership, it’s important that booksellers make time to support projects that matter to their community, Bagnulo said.

“Saying no is important,” Fitting said, “but for the things you do say yes to, you and your store can garner good karma. To make a bookish reference, I’m a believer in ‘pay it forward.’ Think of your store as a way to help provide access to information, resources, escape, or whatever it is they need access to.”

“For the things that you do say yes to, keep track of what your giving is. Don’t be mercenary about it, but do track it and make sure that you’re not giving in a cone of silence,” she added. “Sure, it can feel awkward to tout your successes or feel-good moments, but it’s important to do so. It can invite your customers to feel good about you and themselves for participating, too.”

The give doesn’t always have to be financial, Bagnulo added. Sometimes it’s about facilitating “connections between customers and nonprofits they can support, or offering our expertise,” she said. “And while something like this does drive sales, the rewards for us as booksellers are sometimes non-monetary as well: making a difference in our little world makes the job worthwhile.”