The Short-Lived Story of Attempting to Save Storied Store Short Stories

February 7, 2020

Short Stories has been a fixture of Madison’s Main Street since it first opened in 2014, the product of a successful Kickstarter that raised $18,260. The bookstore has been a community-based venture from the start — the Kickstarter’s description emphasized community, and highlighted strong local shopping trends and a history of supporting bookstores. So it was a surprise to many Madison residents on Jan. 5, when the store posted a notice that their “nearly 6-year adventure is coming to a close” and that Short Stories would be shutting down by the end of March.

 

But in the days that followed, locals remembered its community roots—two neighbors, Kate Ransom-Silliman and Christy Pambianchi, began to formulate a plan to save Short Stories, culminating in a meeting of roughly 20 Madison residents on the night of Jan. 29 in the bookstore. Ransom-Silliman and Pambianchi, along with Short Stories manager Merril Speck, covered the causes of the store’s shuttering as well as options going forward. During the meeting, the main options discussed were converting the place into a nonprofit or bringing in a co-renter, likely in the form of a small coffee shop. 

 

A nonprofit route, with an increased emphasis on community arts and literacy, was the first option considered. It would allow the bookstore to accept grants and donations to recoup the losses that owners Barbara Short and Mary Weichert have been bearing, but the change would be accompanied by decreased book inventory and increased musical and artistic events in the space. This plan was designed to anchor the store in its community-based roots, and fulfill Ransom-Silliman and Pambianchi’s goal of maintaining the existing event space.

 

This event space, while central to the community aspect of Short Stories, has been part of the store’s struggles. Because half of the store's floor space is routinely empty in anticipation of musical or social events, employees are only able to stock half the number of books that would otherwise be possible. This, alongside the bookstore’s already low stock as it was funded through its financial difficulties by owner Barb Short, caused the store to not be able to purchase all of the newest books — potentially leading customers to other, larger bookstores in nearby towns. 

 

 IMAGE COURTESY OF SHELF AWARENESS

 

To help the community-dedicated half of the store generate revenue, organizers had considered bringing a coffee shop into the space—Short Stories had previously added a small table along a back wall with coffee and tea, but it was hoped that increased service and a wider variety of coffees and pastries could boost sales—alongside potential board game and trivia nights for families and students at nearby Drew University and Fairleigh Dickinson University. Coffee shops that the organizers were in talks with would have co-rented the space — helping to shoulder the burden of the $5100 per month rent. But this route would not have come without opposition — fierce competition would come from Madison staple Drip Coffee, directly across the street, and from the newly opened Sunday Motor Co. Cafe a block away.

 

The perceived struggles of independent bookstores have been well-documented over the past two decades—it has become increasingly difficult for brick-and-mortar stores to compete with the prices and convenience of Amazon and other online retailers. Since 2000, most major national bookstore chains have either closed (like Borders Books) or been taken private by investors (like Books-A-Million). And as each closed its doors, Amazon increased its rate of book sales, providing prices and convenience that the stores couldn’t compete with. Short Stories was no different—at the meeting, anecdotes were shared of customers picking up a book in interest, only to set it down and comment that they’d buy it at home online, as it would be cheaper.

 

Despite the challenges, over the course of the past five years the number of independent bookstores in the United States has increased. This is likely, at least in part, due to the widespread shuttering of their larger corporate counterparts—smaller bookstores like Short Stories were able to gain traction in communities where a more prominent store, such as Barnes and Noble, may have closed.

 

But the task proved too great—faced with the prospect of raising hundreds of thousands of dollars in just a few weeks, as well as a landlord with tenants lined up to occupy the prime real estate when the store’s lease expires, Ransom-Silliman and Pambianchi announced two days later that they would not go forward with their plan.

 

 

 IMAGE COURTESY OF SHELF AWARENESS

 

In an email, the duo said that “it [would not be] possible to pull together all the pieces that would need to be assembled (non-profit formation, fundraising, lining up investors, re-ordering books) while still covering staff and carrying the lease on a large store.” Their current plan is to find a more affordable lot on Main St. and open up a smaller independent bookstore.

 

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